Spellsinger 04 – The Moment Of The Magician by Foster, Alan Dean

“And I say Opiode should give way!”

The speaker. Asmouelle the tamandua, stood be-

fore the narrow wooden oval that was the Quorum

table and glared at his colleagues. His nose was

damp and glistening, and so was the table. Most

everything stayed damp in Quasequa, a city built on

numerous islands in the middle of the Lake of

Sorrowful Pearls. Causeways joined the islands together,

and each isle sent its duly chosen representative to

^ argue for it in the Quorum.

This afternoon the arguments raged hotter than

the air outside the Quorumate. The members were

debating the selection of an advisor in matters ar-

cane and magical.

The unexpected challenger for this mystic position

sat and brooded in a chair at the far end of the

Quorum chamber. Reluctant attendants saw to his

needs. They were afraid of the newcomer. So were

several members of the Quorum, though none

confessed such unseemly fears openly.

Two members openly supported the challenger,

but not out of fear. Kindore and Vazvek saw a

chance to better themselves by striking a bargain

with the newcomer for their aid. The rest of the

2 Alan Dean Poster

Quorum regarded this naked display of sycophancy

with disgust.

And now Asmouelle appeared to have joined


The tamandua sat down. Domurmur the lynx rose

and spoke dispassionately. “And / say this wanderer

has yet to prove himself capable of anything stronger

than bad breath.” His paws rested on the ancient

table, which was as black and shiny as a bottle of


Kindore responded with an insult of some subtlety,

and once again the debate dissolved into chaos. It

ceased only when Trendavi raised a hand for silence.

He did not stand. Long experience had taught him

that it was not necessary for a legislator to jump up

and down like a toy in a box to make a point.

The aged pangolin squinted down the length of

the table, studying the challenger silently for a moment.

Then he nodded to his left.

“Opiode the Sly has been principal advisor in

arcane matters to the Quorum of Quasequa for

nearly thirty years. Skillfully and well has he served.

The city and its citizens have profited much from his

advice.” Trendavi showed scaly palms. “As have we


Words of agreement rose from the members while

Kindore and Vazvek were conspicuous by their silence.

The newcomer said nothing.

“It is true that this Markus person”—and Trendavi

gestured toward the individual in the solitary chair,

who sat smiling to himself as if at some secret joke—

“has demonstrated to the Quorum nothing more

than a facile tongue.”

Now the newcomer stood and approached the

black table. “Since you credit me with it, let me use

it, friends.” The towering form of his personal body-

guard moved to stand close to the door. “Can I come


nearer?” He smiled pleasantly and even Domurlnur

had to admit that this Markus the Ineluctable, as he

styled himself, could be downright ingratiating in

manner when he so desired. Especially for a human,

a species not noted for its social graces.

Trendavi nodded. All eyes focused on the newcom-

er as he moved close.

For his part, Markus the Ineluctable sensed antag-

onism, fear, curiosity, and some open support among

the members of the Quorum. He would concentrate

his efforts on persuading those who seemed to be

wavering. Of the ten, he could count on three. The

two who openly feared him he could ignore. He had

to persuade at least two others.

And he had to move carefully lest he panic them

all. It was too early to press his demands. His posi-

tion was uncertain in Quasequa, and despite his

powers, he had no wish to raise a formal alliance

against him. Far better to make friends of them than

enemies. Of a majority, anyway.

“I’ve come here from a faraway land, a land far-

ther off and stranger than any of you can imagine.”

“So you’ve claimed.” Domurmur had become some-

thing of an unofficial spokesman for Markus’s

opposition. “All that you claim is difficult to be-


“Yet much of it is proven by my presence, isn’t it?”

“Not necessarily,” said Newmadeen, preening her

whiskers casually. One of her long ears was bent

forward in the middle, a sign of beauty among the


Markus turned away momentarily and coughed.

He did not need to cough, but he didn’t want them

to see the expression on his face. He didn’t like being

called a liar- Calming himself, he turned to face

them again. Newmadeen he didn’t reply to, but he

4 Alan Dean Foster

would remember her. Oh, yes, he would remember

her. Markus the Ineluctable never forgot an enemy.

“Why not?”

Cascuyom the howler shrugged. “There is nothing

unique or remarkable about your person. There are

many humans living in Quasequa. All species mix

freely here. Or you could have come from any one

of several neighboring lands with denser human

populations. Your humanness is proof of nothing.”

Markus stepped up to the table, enjoying the way

several of the members shied away from him. “But

I’m no mere human! I’m not your usual mortal. I

am a magician—the magician. Markus the Ineluctable!

I have powers you cannot comprehend, abilities you

cannot conceive of, talents you cannot imagine!”

“A mouth big beyond belief,” Domurmur whispered

to the beauteous Newmadeen.

Trendavi cleared his throat, spoke thoughtfully

and, he hoped, with some degree of neutrality- “You

must think quite highly of your skills to come straight

to the Quorum to challenge the faithful and talented

Opiode without first passing time as an apprentice.

For the nonce I will credit you with boldness instead

of ignorance. Whether Opiode will be as forgiving

remains to be seen.” He nodded toward the salaman-

der seated in the advisor’s chair off to his right.

Red-orange blotches decorated what was visible of

Opiode’s back. He wore a single garment that resem-

bled a raincoat. It was not close-fitting. No salaman-

der could wear anything close to its skin because its

natural bodily secretions would cause the material to


Opiode’s long tail flicked nervously back and forth.

What he’d heard of this Markus the Ineluctable

hadn’t pleased him. Now that he saw him in the

flesh, he liked the man even less.

Still, he’d held his peace because protocol demanded


it. Not that his personal opinion would be accepted

as evidence. The selection of chief advisor to the

Quorum was purely a matter of business. He would

have his turn in due course. So he continued to sit

quietly, ignoring the debate as best he could while

trying to still the twitching of his tail.

Markus was talking on. “I can do things you won’t

believe by means of a magic you’ve never encountered


“More talk,” said Domurmur, slapping the table

with a paw- Markus grinned at him.

**I suspected it would come to this. You want more

than talk from me.”

“That’d be nice,” said Domurmur sarcastically.

“We’ve had to contend with applicants whose loquadou&-

ness far exceeded their abilities before”

For an instant, it seemed as if Markus the Inelucta-

ble was about to lose his temper. His barely concealed

rage didn’t faze Domurmur. He was made of sterner

stuff than some of his colleagues.

“Yes.” said Opiode suddenly, unable to contain

himself any longer. “Let’s have an end to this talkl”

All eyes turned to the chief advisor as he rose

from his seat. The glow bulbs hanging by their single

Strands from the curved stone ceiling pulsed a little

brighter as the salamander stood. It was his spelling

which provided their soft, steady light. The servitors

flanking the doorways whispered expectantly among

themselves. Attendants and Quorum members alike

could feel the power flowing from the old wizard,

could sense that he was completely involved in what

was taking place.

About the challenger there was no such percepti-

ble aura of strength. There was only the air of

mystery and feeling of alienness he had brought with

him from the moment he’d stepped into the chamber.

6 Alan Dean Poster

That, and the regal bearing he affected, which some-

how seemed not to fit.

Nor was his actual appearance particularly impres-

sive. He was tall for a human but not spectacularly

so, round of countenance, and crowned with less fur

than most. In hand-to-hand combat it was unlikely

he could have defeated any of the Quorum with the

exception of old Trendavi, for he displayed a consid-

erable paunch above his belt line.

The forthcoming batde would not be physical,

however. Opiode approached the Quorum. “I see no

reason to oppose a challenge. Indeed, I could not

turn it down if 1 wished to. Nor is there any way you

can choose between us without a contest of wills. The

people of Quasequa deserve to have an advisor who

has proven his abilities” He sighed deeply, looked

resigned as he smoothed the slime on the back oT his

hands with a fold of his voluminous robe.

“I have demonstrated my fitness many times be-

fore and expect to have to do so many times again.”

He cocked an amphibian eye Coward the newcomer.

“Have you any objection to a public contest?”

“Here and now suits me fine.” Markus fairly oozed

confidence. “I’m a little new at this kind of duel. Do

we need seconds?”

“1 think not. In any event, my assistant Flute is

quite young and I would not want him subjected to

mystic influences that could injure him at a delicate

Stage of his development.”

“Aw, I wouldn’t do that.” Markus turned. “Prugg,

no matter what happens you stay there and keep out

of the way. Understand?” The huge bodyguard nod-

ded once and backed away from the table. He was

not completely impassive, however. Like everyone

else in the chamber, he was curious to see how his

master would fare. He was even a little worried.

After all, Opiode was the most noted wizard in the


land. It was simple for his master to overawe the

peasant folk with his magic, but outwitting Opiode

would be another matter entirely.

Markus the Ineluctable seemed anything but

intimidated, though. He grinned and gestured

expansively toward the salamander. “You first.”

Opiode did not smile. “Food is vital to the health

of all. No food is more important to the people of

Quasequa than the fish that swim in the lakes around

us.” He slid back his sleeves, cleared his throat, and

his words rolled through the chamber.

“The bounty of the lake

I bid you aH to share

Your hungers may you slake

With meat beyond compare

For while I advise Quasequa there will be

No nutritional dystopia

But always instead if you look you will see

An ichthyological cornucopia.”

Quorum members and servitors alike watched with

the fascination of children as a small, glowing blue-

green whirlpool formed in the air above the floor.

You could smell the lake water as the vortex hummed.

Then the fish poured forth, falling head upon tail,

until there was a heaping mound of flopping, bounc-

ing weewaw lying in the middle of the floor. Weewaw,

the hardest to catch and tastiest of all. And Opiode

had brought forth this expensive and improbable

feast with a wave of his hands and a few words.

The wizard spoke only when the last fish had

• tumbled to the stones and the whirlpool had vanished.

“Can you so readily insure the supply of food to the

citizens of the city?”

Markus frowned a moment. Then his grin returned.

He raised his hands above his head, the fingers

8 Alan Dean Poster

pointing outward. His black cape fluttered behind

him. The Quorum members strained to listen, but

those with good hearing could make no sense of the

newcomer’s words. Even Opiode, who could hear the

incantation clearly, did not understand. The words

were strange and sharp.

Sense they might not have made, but there was no

denying their effect. A bright green glow appeared

before the table. A few of the members shifted

nervously in their chairs, and Markus casually as;

sured them they had nothing to worry about.

The glow expanded and thinned. Markus looked

smug as the glow formed a floating rectangle above

the floor.

It was an aquarium without sides- Magic alone

held the water in place. Swimming to and fro within

the drifting section of lake was a whole school of

weewaw. suspended before the Quorum.

“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I hate

waste. Wouldn’t it be better to get your fish one at a

time and keep the others fresh for the taking?”

Opiode muttered something and his pile of dead

weewaw vanished. Markus did likewise and the float-

ing aquarium also disappeared, save for a few mis-

placed drops which stained the floor-

“Well brought!” said Kindore, only to have his

colleagues shush him. Opiode glared at the flying

squirrel, then turned his attention back to the smil-

ing Markus. They had determined one thing already.

His challenger was for real.

“It is not enough to feed a population in times of

difficulty, stranger. One must be able to defend

them as well” Again he lifted an arm, made sinuous

motions in the air.

“Let those who threaten

beware, beware


We will not fight

with air, with air

We mold our weapons

with care, so there

Be metallurgical might!”

Fire this time, bright and hot. The Quorum mem-

bers shielded their faces as the set of armor co-

alesced before them, melting out of the flames. Sword,

shield, and long spear accompanied it. The fire

cooled and flickered out.

Notorian moved from his seat to inspect the newly

forged weapons. He hefted the sword, tapped the

armor with it.

“Fine instruments for fighting.”

“For one fighter, yes,” Markus agreed readily. “For

a trained warrior. But what of the ordinary citizen?

How does he, or she, defend the community?”

Once more he raised his hands, once again he

intoned an invocation none could comprehend. This

he concluded by swinging his cape around in front

of him, to form a funnel in the air.

There was a tinkling sound as something fell from

the base of the funnel. Then another, and another.

It became a metallic clashing as the flow increased,

until the flow of knives was a shining waterfall pouring

from the bottom of the cape.

Notorian the wolf picked one up and tested the

edge. “Finest steel I’ve ever seen,” he declared to the

stunned Quorum. The rush of metal continued until

Trendavi finally raised a hand himself.

“Enough!” Markus nodded, let the cape swirl back

around his neck. As he did so, the clanging waterfall

ceased. The floor of the Quorum chamber was awash

in knives of every shape and size- Markus kicked a

few of them aside and bowed.

“As my employers wish.” He swept a hand out to

Alan Dean Fofltcr


encompass the armory. “A gift to the Quorum and to

the citizens of Quasequa, my adopted home.”

“They’re only knives,” Cascuyom muttered.

“You’d prefer swords?” Markus asked him, over-

hearing. “Or maybe something more lethal still? Like

this.” He threw his left hand toward the ceiling- A

burst of lightning flew from his fingers to shatter the

pole holding a banner across the table. Splinters and

fabric tumbled onto the Quorum. Markus grinned as

they fought to extricate themselves while maintaining

their dignity.

“Something more impressive?” he inquired.

“No, no, that will be quite satisfactory,” harrumphed

Trendavi, trying to untangle himself from the fallen


“You can feed and you can destroy,” snapped

Opiode, “but can you create?”

Again the salamander’s hands moved in time to his


“Jewels of the earth

Scarce and profound

Gems of great worth

Come forth from the ground

Rise here to please us

To tempt and to tease us!”

Crystals of blue and yellow, of rose and lavender

began to take shape in the center of the table. They

seemed to grow out of the wood, catching the light

as they developed, throwing back delightful colors at

the enraptured members. By the time Opiode con-

cluded the incantation, the entire table was encrusted

with crystals. A smattering of applause came from

the servitors gathered along the walls-

But Markus the Ineluctable only smiled wider as


he moved his fingers against one another. The ap-

plause for Opiode turned to awed whispers.

Flowers began to appear, growing out of the na-

ked stone of the walls and ceiling. Exotic, alien

blossoms that put forth the most exquisite smells. A

blaze of color and fragrance filled the Quorum cham-

ber to overflowing.

You could see the opinions of several members of

the Quorum begin to shift in/Markus’s favor.

“Satisfied yet?” Markus asked them. “You tell me

which of us is the more powerful magician.”

“A magician is a trickster, not a wizard,” said


Markus shrugged. “I prefer magician. I’m comfort-

able with it. I’ve always called myself a magician. As

for my ‘tricks,’ they seem just as effective as your

wizardry. Had enough?”

“There is one more thing,” said Opiode slowly.

“You have shown what you can do for others, but can

you do for yourself?” So saying he pointed a red-and-

black arm at Markus’s face and uttered an incanta-

tion so powerful the words cannot stand repeating.

A slight but steady breeze sprang up, rippling the

fur of the onlookers, and the glow bulbs grew dim. No

one in the chamber dared to breathe, lest a fraction

of that energy latch onto them and turn them to


As they stared, Markus the Ineluctable began to

rise from the floor. He put his hands on his hips and

considered his levitation thoughtfully, then nodded

appreciatively in Opiode’s direction.

“Hey. not bad. Not bad at all.” Then he raised one

hand and murmured something almost indifferently.

Opiode the Siy, Opiode the clever, Opiode the

principal advisor in matters arcane and magical to

the Quorum of Quasequa, vanished.

Shouts and cries from the servitors, mild panic

Aim Dean roster


among the more impressionable members of the.

Quorum as Markus settled gently back to the ground.

“What have you done with him?” Domunnur’s

teeth were clenched, but he knew when he was

overmatched. There was little more he could do than

ask. “Where is he?”

“Where is he? Well now, let me think.” Markus

rubbed his chin. “He might be over… there!” He

pointed sharply toward a far doorway. Servitors

stationed there scattered, dropping a platter of fruit

behind them. Markus turned, inspecting the chamber.

“Or he might be… under there.” A couple of the

members of the Quorum inadvertently peered un-

der the table, hastily sat up straight in their chairs

when they realized how easily the newcomer had

manipulated them.

“But he’s actually probably right… here.” Markus

the Ineluctable removed his black hat, turned it

upside down, and tapped it once, twice, a third time.

Out plopped a dazed and very disoriented Opiode

the Sly. Disdaining Markus’s proffered hand, the

salamander struggled to his feet and backed away,

shaking his head and trying to regain his bearings.

From the Quorum came a rising cry in support of


Opiode ignored it, stared narrowly at his opponent.

“I don’t know how you did that, but of one thing I

am certain: it was no clean wizardry.”

“Oh, it was clean enough,” said Markus smugly.

“Just a mite different from what you’re used to,

that’s all. Are you afraid of something different,

something new?” He turned to face the Quorum.

“Are you all afraid of something different, even if it’s

better than what you’ve been used to?”

“No,” said Trendavi quickly. “We are not afraid of

what is different, or of what is new. We of Quasequa

pride ourselves on accepting new things, on promot-



ing innovation.” He gazed sorrowfully in Opiode’s

direction. “It is my recommendation and I hereby

move that the Quorum officially nominate Markus

the Ineluctable to the position of chief advisor to the

Quorum on matters arcane and magical, and I fur-

thermore move that Opiode the Sly, who has served

us so well lo these many years, be retired from the

post with a vote of thanks and an official commenda-

tion to be decided upon later.”

“Seconded!” said a pair of voices simultaneously.

And that was that. It was done, over, and Markus

stood smiling, arms crossed before him as his sup-

porters gathered around to congratulate him on his

victory and those who had opposed him moved to

offer grudging words of acceptance. A few would

have offered their condolences to the defeated Opiode,

but the salamander did not linger. Instead, he left

quickly and with dignity, still a bit shaken from the

manner in which Markus had handled him, but in

no way cowed or t>eaten.

It was dark in the wizard’s study. But then, Opiode

preferred the dim light and the dampness. His rooms

were situated at the edge of the Quorumate Com-

plex and below the water line. Ancient stones held

back the warm water of the Lake of Sorrowful Pearls

while allowing a pleasant dampness to seep through.

Thick moss, red as well as green, grew on the stones

and ceiling. The furniture was fashioned of stone or

boram root, which resists rot.

Glow bulbs dangled overhead, their magic lights

dimmer than usual, the weak illumination a reflec-

tion of the wizard’s uncomfortable state of mind.

Opiode stared steadily at one flickering bulb as he

lay in his thinktank. The stone basin was filled with

freshly drawn lake water rich with lichens, mosses,

tight blue hot pads, and minute aquatic insects.

14 Alan Dean Foster

Altogether, the rooms constituted a benign and

thoroughly salamandrine environment.

But as Opiode lay on his back, his arms crossed

over his chest, his tail gently agitating the water, it

was plain to see he was disturbed. Tending the

crackling fire nearby was a much smaller and younger

salamander, well aware of his master’s unease. Flute

wore the cloak of an apprentice. He was stouter than

Opiode, marked with black spots instead of red, and

his expression was anxious- His feathery pink gills

lay flat against his neck as he waited patiently for

Opiode to arise. A sad day. He knew what had

happened in the Quorum chamber far above. Every-

one in the city would know by tonight.

Finally Opiode rose from the basin, shifting easily

to inhaling air instead of water, and declared

portentously, “This thing must not be allowed to


“Your pardon. Master,” said Flute sofdy. “What

must not be allowed to happen?”

“I have lost. There is nothing that can be done

about that. Nor do I deny the strength of this

newcomer’s magic. He is a valid wizard, or magician,

or whatever he chooses to call himself. A manipula-

tor of the unknown. But it is not his abilities I fear; it

is his intentions. Those I comprehend even less than

his magic.”

He walked over to stand before the fire. Flute

moved to the table and checked the settings for

supper, then to the stove on which a big pot of

caddisfly stew sat boiling. He stirred it carefully. One

had to have a delicate touch with the dish or the

nests within would become soft and stringy and

would lose the delicate crunch so beloved of gourmets.

“Nor do I like the attitude of his original support-

ers on the Quorum,” Opiode went on, staring into

the fire. “Kindore and Vazvek. Those two opportun-



ists would throw in their lot with anyone they thought

might help them turn a profit. And Asmouelle and

some of the others have the spines of worms. With so

much support, there is nothing to stop this Markus.”

“Stop him from doing what. Master?”

“From doing whatever he wishes to do. He is chief

advisor to the Quorum. A prestigious position and

one which would satisfy most. But not him, 1 think. I

saw that much in his eyes. That is not sorcery. That is

thirty years of experience. Flute. No, he wants more.

I fear, much more.”

“Evil designs. Master?”

“Flute, I have lived long enough and dealt with

those in power often enough to recognize the hun-

ger for power when it manifests itself on the face of

another. I saw it in the face of Markus the Inelucta-

ble as I left the Quorum chamber. He conceals it

from the others, but he cannot hide it from me,

“Did you know. Flute, that the great joy of living in

Quasequa is that we have never had a single ruler?

No kings here, no presidents or emperors. Only the

Quorum, which functions in a kind of constrained

anarchy. It suits us, we Quasequans.

“This Markus will think otherwise. He will see

weakness where we see strength. And it does have its

vulnerabilities, our system, particularly when some

are ready to grovel at the feet of the first would-be

dictator who comes along and declares himself.”

“You think he means to announce himself absolute


“I wish I could be certain, but I can’t.” Opiode

absently cleaned his left eye with his tongue. “In any

event, I am no longer in a position to stop him.”

“Is his magic so much stronger than yours, Master?”

“It was today. On another day”—he shrugged slick

shoulders—”who can say? But there is no denying

his power. If 1 only knew the source he draws

Alan Dean Foster


upon…” He broke off and moved to the table, the

frustration sharp on his face.

Flute reached for the potholders. “Supper, Master?”

“No, not yet.” Opiode waved him off, his mind

working intensely. “If I could only be certain of his

intentions, of his motivations—but where humans

are concerned, nothing is obvious, nothing is certain.”

“What if he truly is more powerful than you,

Master?” It was not a disrespectful question.

“Then we will need the assistance of one who can

deal not only with strong magic but with strange


“There is one more talented than you. Master?”

For the First time that day, Opiode smiled slighdy.

“You have seen but little of the wide world, my

young student. It is unimaginably vast and rich with

wonders and surprises. Yes, there are wizards more

powerful than I. I am thinking of one in particular.

One who is wise beyond all others, knowledgeable

beyond comprehending, stronger even, I think, than

this Markus the Ineluctable… 1 hope. One who is

brave, courageous, and bold, an inspiration to all

other wizards. It is he whose help we must have:

Clothahump of the Tree.”

Flute frowned, turned away so that Opiode could

not see the skepticism on his face. “I have heard of

him. Master. Truly it is said that he is wise and full of

learning, long-lived and powerful. However, I have

yet to hear it said of him that he is brave, courageous,

and bold.”

“Well,” Opiode retreated somewhat, “I confess some

of it may be rumor. But his ability is proven fact. You

know that he was largely responsible for the recent

defeat of the Plated Folk at the batde for the Jo-

Troom Gale.”

“I have heard many versions of that battle. Master,

some of which were less flattering to Clothahump of



the Tree than others. It is told that he was there at

the critical moment, yes, but to what degree he was

involved depends on which storyteller you are listen-

ing to.”

“Nevertheless, he is the only one powerful enough

to help us. We must seek his aid. He cannot refuse


“How will you inform him. Master?” Flute gazed

sadly at the supper that was on the verge of

overcooking. “Shall I prepare the pentagram for a

traveling conjuration?”

“No.” Opiode rose from the table. “This Markus

might be strong enough to detect it. And there is no

guarantee of its working, given the distance the

conjuration would have to travel. Clothahump’s home

lies a long way from Quasequa—and I am getting

old. It has been a long time since I attempted a

traveling conjuration over such a distance.”

Flute was shocked by this admission of weakness

but fought not to show it. Truly the loss of today’s

contest had weakened not only his Master’s stature

but his confidence as well.

Or perhaps Opiode the Sly was merely being prop-

eriy cautious. Flute preferred to think that that was

the case.

“We must have a messenger,” the wizard muttered.

“A reliable messenger. One who is used to traveling

far and fast and who will not be afraid to leave the

familiar country that surrounds the Lake of Sorrow-

ful Pearls.” He thought a moment longer before

nodding to himself and looking up at his apprentice-

“Khi the Isle of Kunatweh, the furthermost of the

four high islands that form the eastern part of the

.city, hi the place where the fliers congregate, lives a

raven named Pandro. Bring him here to “me- Make

certain that none see you. I will explain what he

must do. Although 1 have never had reason to use

18 Alan Dean Foster

one such as him before, by reputation he is brave

and trustworthy. Again 1 tell you to take care in your

going and returning. It is said that this Markus

already has spies roaming the city and reporting

back only to him.

“Although he defeated me today, he strikes me as

no fool. I am sure he still regards me as his most

dangerous rival. In that he is right,” Opiode muttered

grimly. “I sense and see what kind of individual he is

and so am unalterably opposed to having him in a

position of power in the city 1 love so dearly. I believe

he must know my feelings toward him, and in any

case, such as he will leave nothing to chance. So he

will have this place watched. At least you can slip out

without being seen. I do not believe anyone eke

knows of my private entryway.”

“When do I leave. Master?”

“Now.” The wizard hesitated. “Have you eaten?”

“It does not matter. Master. I can eat anytime.**

“No,” Opiode said firmly.” “You may need all your

strength. First we eat.”

They did so, the meal passing largely in contempla-

tive silence. Then Flute secured his waterproof cloak

snugly around him and moved to the arched alcove

on the far side of the room. The arch was an

inverted bell fashioned of tightly chinked tile. A

pressure spell invoked by Opiode kept the lake water


Flute climbed the stone steps until he could look

out onto the black water that lapped against the wall

of the bell. He readied his gills, fluffing them out

with his hands, and dove into the water.

A couple of fast kicks carried him well out into the

open lake. He did not surface but swam hard and

unerringly for the four high islands of the east. Like

the other isles that combined to form the sprawling

city of Quasequa, they were connected to one an-



other by causeways, but this was not the time to walk

openly on city streets.

It was time for stealth and for clinging to the dark

bottom of the lake.


Opiode sat in his robes of office, a thin, narrow

upswept cap balanced on the middle of his slick

head, and regarded his visitor. Flute stood quietly by

the front door.

The raven wore the kilt of his clan, colorful material

striped with green, purple, and red. His vest was light-

ly spun lavender. A single gold chain hung round

his neck to rest against his chest feathers. He rubbed

the underside of his beak with a flexible wingtip.

“Let me get this straight, now, sorcerer.” He was

studying the papers Opiode had handed him. “You

want me to fly north along this route, turning slighdy

west here, to deliver this message.” He shuffled the

papers, held up one filled with writing instead of

diagrams. “It goes to an old turtle named Clothahump

who lives in”—he checked the map briefly—”this ma-

jor tree here. For one hundred coins.” Opiode nodded.

“That’s a helluva long flight,” Pandro said.

“I had heard that you were not afraid of long flights.”

“I ain’t. 1 ain’t afraid of anything, least of all a little

long-distance traveling. But considering how quiet

you’re being about this, and the amount you’re paying

me, well, no disrespect. Master Opiode, but—what’s

the catch?”



Opiode glanced at Flute, then sighed and smiled,

down at Pandro. “It would not be right for me to

keep it from you. You must know what you are

about, as well as its importance.

“You must have heard that another has assumed

my position as chief advisor to the Quorum.”

“Sure. It’s all over town. This Markus fella… what’s

it to me?”

“Good Pandro, I have reason to believe that this

newcomer intends ill toward our great city. But 1

cannot convince the members of the Quorum of

that. They would think I was making accusations out

of bitterness at my loss- And I cannot move against

this Markus by myself. I need help. This Clothahump

that you will seek out is the only one who can help us.

“The ‘catch’ is that this Markus the Ineluctable is

crafty as well as skilled in the arcane arts. You are

sure none saw you arrive here?”

“As sure as we can be, Master,” said Flute. “I took

every precaution.”

“Then, good Pandro, there may be no catch. But

be ever alert as you wing northward, for this Markus

is not stupid. If he believes you are aiding me, it

could be dangerous for you. If he did see you arrive

here, or sees you depart, he may try to stop you

from completing your journey.”

“Is that all?” The raven rested his wingtips on his

hips for a moment, then rolled up the message and

the map and slipped them into his backpack. “Then

Acre’s nothing to concern yourself with. Master

Optode. There isn’t another flier in Quasequa who

Can stay in the air for as long as I can on as little food

as I can. Anybody he sends after me, if he sends

anyone. I can outfly.” He flicked his beak with a


^ “See here? Been broken twice in fights. I can take

,^care of myself and I’m not worried about anything

Alan Dean Foster


this Markus fella might send up after me. If it flies, I

can outrun or outfight it.”

“It is good to be confident. Overconfidence is


“Don’t worry. I’ll use my good judgment, sir. I’ve a

mate and three fledglings to take care of, and you

can bet I’m coming back to them. That’s stronger

motivation than your hundred coins. Relax. I’ll get

your message through.”

“Can you fly at night?” Opiode asked him.

“Night, day, the air’s all the same to me whether

it’s light or dark out. But if you’d feel better about it,

I’ll leave tonight.”

Opiode smiled. “Feel better, I would. The night

must be a friend to us all, now.” Flute nodded


“As you wish, sir.”

“Caution above all,” Opiode counseled him. “This

Markus has spies everywhere. Even among the fliers.”

“I’ll keep it in mind, sir. Once I’m clear of the lake

district I should have free flying all the way north.

Besides, I know all the’good fliers and fighters in the

high islands. I don’t think any are in this fella’s


“I was not worried about your cousins,” Opiode

said darkly, “so much as I was concerned about what

this Markus might call forth from another, more

sinister sky to challenge you.”

“Can’t spend all our time worrying about the

unforeseeable, can we, sir? At least I can’t. I sup-

pose that’s your job.” He tapped his head. “Anyway,

anything I can’t outfly or outfight I can sure as hell


“Then be off with you, owner of an unseen cloud,

and hasten back to us safely.”

Pandro started for the doorway. “You can bet on

that, sir.”



“A raven, you say?” Markus the Ineluctable was

listening with only half his mind to what the mouse

was telling him. He was too busy enjoying the splen-

dor of his new tower quarters, the finest that the

Quorumate Complex could offer.

“Yes, wise one,” said the mouse. It had a tendency

to stutter, a condition made worse by its proximity to

the powerful and much-feared new chief advisor to

the Quorum. “It flew s-s-straight away from the

H-Ianding where Mossamay Street and the wizard’s

c-c-close join.”

“Which direction did it take?”

“It f-f-flew north, wise one. Few city fliers live to

the n-n-north.”

Markus turned from contemplation of an exqui-

site wood carving to stare at his bodyguard. The

mouse barely came up to his hip. “Prugg, what’s

your opinion of this?”

Prugg was very big, very strong, and not very

bright. Despite his size and strength, people had a

tendency to laugh at him. At least, they used to.

Since he’d become Markus the Ineluctable’s personal

servant they’d stopped laughing. Prugg was just intelli-

gent enough to realize this. He was very grateful to

‘ the magician. Markus made him feel comfortable,

feven though he understood very little of what his

new master had to say.

But he didn’t have to think anymore. Markus did

all his thinking for him, Prugg found thinking

uncomfortable. And nobody laughed at him anymore.

• He was respected and feared. It was a new sensation

<and Prugg found that he liked it. Markus under-

‘•Steod him, understood his needs. Prugg responded

^with devoted, unquestioning service.

^’ So he considered the question carefully before

)lying. “It is true that the lands to the north of the

24 Alan Dean Foster

city are not as thickly inhabited as those in other

directions. Master.”

“What’s the land to the north of here like?”

“Open forest where live peoples who do not pledge

their allegiance to the city or to any other government,

Master. North of that is the Wrounipai, the first of

many swamps all connected together that run from

west to east. They cut us off from any lands that lie

still farther north.”

“And what about those lands?”

“I do not know. Master. I have never been there. I

do not know anyone from the city who has ever been


“And that’s the way this bird was heading when he

left Opiode’s place.” Markus turned his full attention

on his spy. “You’re certain of that?”

“Y-y-y-y-for sure, wise one! I am certain of it. He

f-f-f-flew straight away from the wizard’s neighborhood.

I followed him with my eyes from the rooftops


“Okay, but how can we be sure he was on a mission

for Opiode?”

The visitor moved nearer, anxious to ingratiate

himself with the magician- His whiskers trembled as

he whispered.

“The wizard Opiode has a young assistant named

Flute. I s-s-saw him conversing with the raven before

he took off for the north.” Markus was nodding

absently, admiring the polished hardwood inlay of

the table behind him- A single chair rested against

the table.

It needs something, he thought. A gargoyle or

demon or some such carved atop the chair. Some-

thing to draw the visitors’ eyes upward. For that

matter, if the table was going to serve as a desk, it

had to be up on a dais. He’d have to get some


carpenters in here and get them started on the

alterations he wanted.

He was aware of his spy standing hopeful and

silent by his legs. “That’s it?”

“That is all, w-w-wise one ”

Markus nodded, glanced toward Prugg. “Give him

a gold piece.”

“Thank you, wise one!” The spy was unaccus-

tomed to such largess, but Markus had always be-

lieved in paying his help as much as possible. Other-

wise you ended up with garbage working for you,

ready to sell you out to the first high bidder. Even if

he was overpaying for this particular bit of information,

in so doing he was buying himself a valuable servant


The mouse took the coin; skittered quickly away

from the ominous, silent shape of Prugg; and did

some admirable bowing and scraping as he retreated

from the magician’s room.

When the door was closed once more, Prugg turned

to his benefactor. “What will you do now, Master?”

“What would you suggest?”

Prugg strained. Thinking hurt his head. “There

are faster fliers than ravens, Master. I would send

them after this one. Better not to take chances. Kill


“He has nearly a full day’s head start,” Markus

murmured, “but I agree with your suggestion.” Prugg

smiled proudly. “I will send fliers out after him, yes,

faut 1 will not hire them. I will conjure them forth to

do our bidding.”

“”Yes. Master,” said Prugg admiringly, waiting to

see what the magician would do next.

What Markus did was to assume a wide stance in

the middle of the room. The floor there had been

deared of all furniture and decoration. Prugg moved

to one side for a better view. He found it astonishing

Alan Dean Foster


that Markus required no special chamber in which to

perform his wizardry. Nothing but a clear floor and

plenty of arm room.

As always, Markus mumbled the incantation. Not

that Prugg would have understood the words any

better than Opiode, but Markus the Ineluctable took

no chances with his secrets.

The room darkened perceptibly and the air grew

very still. Prugg would have been able to see better

with glow bulbs, but Markus would have nothing of

Opiode’s around him and insisted instead on using

simple torches for illumination.

Then a faint whine became audible, alien and

harsh, rising slowly in volume. Prugg strained to see.

In the center of the room, in front of Markus,

shapes took form. If was as the magician had said:

fliers, but fliers akin to none Prugg had ever heard

tell of. He found himself backing away. They were

far smaller than he was, but ugly and threatening to


Markus, on the other hand, seemed delighted by

their appearance. They danced and whirled over his

head as he guided them with words and hands.

“Beautiful, beautiful! Better than I dared hope

for. If only I could’ve called them up as a child. Ah,

well, Prugg, it takes time to master the art. See,

they’re just as I described theml”

The demons continued to pivot and spin over

their master’s head, roaring exultantly and gnashing

their long teeth. In the enclosed space the din was


They had no faces, Prugg noted.

No eyes, nostrils, external ears, or visible mouths.

Only those mindless, clashing teeth. Fangs without

jaws. Prugg found he was shaking. There were worse

things in the world than one’s own nightmares^

“To the north!” Markus cried, pointing with one

Tsss Moanswr or THE WAQSCSAS 2,7

If v!




hand. “There flies the raven named Pandro. Where

he’s going 1 don’t know, but see that he doesn’t get

there. Go!”

One by one, in single file, the faceless demons tore

through the open window. Only when the last of the

growling chorus had faded into the light of mideve

did Markus drop his hands and return to stand

behind his desk.

“About this chair, Prugg. What I want you to do

is—” He stopped and stared at his bodyguard. “Are

you paying attention?”

The huge servant forced his gaze away from the

window where the demons had taken their leave and

back to his master. Markus was speaking as though

die conjuration had never taken place. It was all so

matter-of-fact, so ordinary to him, this calling up of

otherworldly powers.

Truly Prugg was fortunate to have him for a master.

It was a lovely warm day, the air thick with humidi-

ty but not oppressively so. Below Pandro the trees

had closed in, shutting off sight of the ground. He

was already well north not only of Quasequa but of

its outlying villages and satellite communities as well.

Rising thermals allowed him to glide effortlessly

over the dense tropical forest. Since departing

Quasequa he’d stopped only once, and that briefly,

the previous night to catch a bit of sleep. Then up

before dawn for a fast breakfast of fruit, nuts, and

dried fish and on to the north.

In his mind he reviewed the landmarks he would

pass on his way to the distant Bellwoods, a forested

region that was little more than rumor in Quasequa.

Opiode assured him such a place existed, just as he

assured him the great wizard he was to deliver his

message to existed.

If he was real, Pandro would find him. He’d never

28 Alan Dean Foster

failed to make a detivery yet, and this morning he

was feeling particularly confident. He felt so good he

skipped his usual midday snack, preferring to cover

as much territory as possible. Thus far the journey

had proved anything but dangerous. He’d assured

his mate before leaving that it would be more in the

nature of an extended vacation than a difficult

assignment. So far it had developed exacdy as he’d

told her.

Then he heard the noise.

It was behind and slightly above him and growing

steadily louder as he listened. At first he couldn’t

place it. More than anything, it sounded like the

droning he imagined the fliers of the Plated Folk

might make. But those historic enemies were likewise

little more than rumor in Quasequa. Pandro had

only seen drawings of them, the fevered sketches of

far-ranging artists with more imagination than fact

at their disposal.

Hard-shelled, gray-eyed relatives of the common

bugs and crawly things that inhabited the woods and

lakes, they were. None had penetrated as far south

as Quasequa. He certainly never expected to see

them in person. Yet when at last he was able to look

back and make out the shapes pursuing him, he was

startled, for they certainly looked like the representa-

tions he’d seen of the Plated Folk.

The reality as they drew nearer still was worse.

They were not minions of the Plated Folk but some-

thing far more sinister. Similarities in shape and

appearance there were, but even the Plated Folk had

faces. The demons overtaking him had none. They

were hard-shelled but utterly different from any-

thing he’d ever seen before- Nor were they fliers like

his cousins, for where there should have been beaks

he saw only hungry, razor-sharp, strangely curved




No matter how he strained he couldn’t outdistance

them, and they closed the space between with terrify-

ing ease. Hoping to lose them in the trees, he dove

for the crowns of the forest. They followed easily,

closing ground still more when he reemerged from

the branches. He dipped and rolled and dodged,

employing every maneuver he could remember, some-

times vanishing among the foliage, sometimes dou-

bling sharply back on his route before rising again to

check the sky. And the demons stayed with him,

inexorable in their pursuit, malign in their purpose.

For Pandro they meant only death.

One veered just a little too near the mass of a giant

tocoro tree and smashed into the bark. Glancing

backward, Pandro was relieved to see it fall, spinning

and tumbling and broken, to smash into the ground

below. There was still hope, then. Demonic visitors

his tormentors might be, but they were neither invul-

nerable nor immortal. They could be killed.

Six of them had fallen on him. Now there were

five left. But he couldn’t continue the battle at this

speed. All the diving and dodging among the trees

was wasting his strength at a much faster rate than

mere flying. Yet having tried to outrun them and

failed, he didn’t have much choice. He had to keep

to the woods-

One of his pursuers swooped around the bole of a

forest giant, only to find itself caught in the grasp of

a huge, carnivorous flying lizard. Blood spurted as

the two combatants tumbled groundward, unable to

disengage. The lizard was stunned by the ferocity of

the much smaller creature it had caught, while for its

part the demon was unable to break free from sharp

talons. They struck the earth together.

Four left, Pandro thought wildly. His heart was

pounding against his chest feathers and his wing

muscles ached. One of the demons was right on top

Aim Dean Foster


of him, and he had to fold his wings and drop like a

stone, plummeting desperately toward the ground

only to roll out at the last second. Even so, curved

fangs slashed at his left wing in passing, sending

black feathers flying.

He checked the injury as he climbed cloudward.

The wound was superficial, but it had been a near

thing. Too near. And his assailants seemed as fresh

and untired as when they’d First attacked. He had to

do something drastic, and soon. He couldn’t keep

dodging them forever.

Once more he drew his wings in close to his body

and fell earthward. As though of the same mind, the

four demons followed in unison, screaming at him.

Again he rolled up and over before crashing, but

this time he landed behind a chosen tree. His pursu-

ers split and came at him from two sides. The first

one went over his head, the second missed him on

the right. The third went straight for his throat and

crumpled itself against the tree, teeth flying in all

directions as the head shattered. The fourth turned

away to reconsider –

Pandro pushed air as he flew back toward Quasequa,

hoping they wouldn’t see him and intending to make

a wide curve back northward once he’d lost them.

Looking back over his shoulder he spotted two of

them skimming low over the treetops, hunting him

in the opposite direction.

But where was the third surviving demon?

He turned just in time to duck, but the teeth bit

deeply into his neck and back, barely missing his

face. Blood flew with his feathers. The clouds began

to swim in front of his eyes, blotting out all the blue

sky. He felt himself falling toward a green grave.

Good-bye, Asenva of the saucy tail, he thought.

Good-bye fledglings. Good-bye worried wizard, may


your skin never be dry. I tried my best. But you

didn’t tell me I would have to fight demons.

The first tree reached up to catch him. He hit


Prugg enjoyed the expressions that came over the

faces of Kindore and Vazvek when the demons

returned. The two members of the Quorum made

protective signs in front of their faces and all but hid

beneath the master’s cape. Markus let them quake in

terror for a few minutes before assuring them they

were in no danger and that the faceless fliers were

his servants. Even so, Vazvek did not emerge from

behind the magician until the demons had settled

one at a time into waiting wall alcoves.

As soon as he was sure they had fallen asleep,

Prugg approached them. He did not want to show

fear in front of the Quorumen, but he feared the

master’s magic nonetheless.

“Go on, Prugg,” said Markus helpfully. “They won’t

hurt you. They won’t move unless I command them.”

Prugg studied the trio. True to the master’s word,

they ignored him. They were not very big, especially

for demons, but those curved fangs were very

impressive. Prugg ran a finger over one and still its

owner did not stir.

“Only three of them,” Markus murmured- “I won-

der what happened to the other three.” He shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter. I can always call up more.” He

tteraed to face his supporters.

“What do you think, Kindore? Should I bring

dievq back to life and have them dance in the air for


“No, oo, no, advisor,” said a badly shaken Kindore.

He pulled at his thin coat, working to refasten the

buttons which had come loose as he’d scrambled to

32 Alan Dean Foster

avoid the demons. “I have never seen demons like


“How many demons have you seen?” Markus

grinned at the squirrel. “They’re harmless now. We

can resume our discussion.”

This was done. When Markus’s questions had all

been answered, he gave the pair his orders. Not

advice, orders. Markus the Ineluctable had already

moved beyond making suggestions, and Kindore and

Vazvek hastened to carry out his bidding. Things

were moving rapidly now, and the master was pleased.

He dismissed them, watched with amusement as

they retreated quickly, and then walked over to in-

spect his now-silent aerial servants.

“Only three.” He rubbed a forefinger across his

lower lip, then gestured at the last demon in line.

“See, there’s blood on this one’s teeth.”

“I saw. Master.”

“But whose blood? Could it be demon blood?”

Prugg strained but could not come up with a quick


Markus looked pained. “You’re slow, Prugg, you

know that? Real slow.”

“Forgive me, Master. 1 know that I am stupid. But

I try.”

“That’s okay- I don’t keep you around for your wit.

You may as well know that it can’t be demon blood

because there is no blood in any of these creatures,

Just as there is no life in them. They only live at my

command. They’re not sleeping, Prugg. They’re dead.

Until I choose to give them life again. Therefore it

stands to reason, doesn’t it, that this is the blood of

the black messenger?”

“Yes, that must be so,” agreed Prugg. “Yes, the

black flier must be down, along with whatever mes-

sages he carried from that slimy bad loser, Opiode.”


prugg looked pleased. “Can I tell the old wizard his

^’Servant has been killed?”

^ “No, Prugg, you cannot. Nor will I tell him. Let

faun squat in his bath believing his messages are

going to be received. Let him think his trusted

messenger ran out on him. Let him stew those possi-

bilities over for a while. It will keep him out of our

hair for now.” He smited thinly. “I have a lot to do

^and I don’t want to have to waste time worrying

^about the salamander.”



^ “What’s wrong with him?”

Pandro heard the words faintly through the black

^haze that was the inside of his head. There was a

Hflaoment during which he thought the words might’ve

^fceen part of a dream, a bad dream he’d been having.

1’Then more words, different, a little more intelligible

^Cthis time.

“How the hell should I know? Do I look like a


H • “You always did look like something escaped from

||a hospital,” countered the first voice. “One where

j|they treat mental problems.”

j- “Shut up, you two. I think he’s coming around,”

^commanded still a third voice.

^ The voices went away again- It occurred to Pandro

$fhat perhaps they might be waiting for some kind of

^response from him-

^- “I… can hear you okay, but I can’t see you. I’m


^l’ “He’s blind,” said one voice, not in the least

f Sympathetic.

^ “Have you tried,” said the third voice, a little more

rntly, “opening your eyes?”

Pandro mulled this over. “Why, no. I haven’t.”

|»”Try,” the voice urged him.

H Pandro blinked, discovered he was lying on a crude

34 Alan Dean Foster

platform built between two branches high above the

forest floor. The foliage around him was swarming

with the graceful, swift shapes of fellow fliers. They

had one thing in common: every one of them was

considerably smaller than he was. None stood more

than a foot high.

Two of the three who were staring down at him

wore blue-and-black kilts with bright chartreuse vests,

while the third was clad in a kilt of white and yellow

with a pink vest. This attire was subdued compared

to their natural coloration, which was brilliant and


At first he had a hard time telling them apart.

They hardly ever stopped moving, darting in front

of him, behind, making erratic loops around the

branches, arguing constantly with each other, and

occasionally flitting overhead to sip from one of the

huge tropical blossoms that burst forth from the


Shoving backward with his wingtips, Pandro sat

up, winced in pain- His wing came away from the

back of his neck unbloodied, however. If he hadn*t

turned at the last instant, the demon would have bit

him in the face. The image that produced in his

mind made him queasy all over again.

“Where are you from?… What are you doing

here?… Who are you?… Why the neck chain… ?”

The trio threw one question after another at him

and didn’t wait for replies- One of them was tapping

him on the shoulder as it spoke.

“Take it easy,” Pandro pleaded. A quick inspection

revealed that the surrounding trees were filled with

tiny homes and traditional covered nests. “My turn

first- Where did you find me?”

One of the querulous hummingbirds drifted in

front of Pandro, fanning his face with wings that

were sensed rather than seen- It nodded to its right.


*You came down over there.” Crimson flashed

^beneath its bill. “Busting branches all the way down.

^.Wonder is that you didn’t bust your skull.”

“Some others tried to,”

“Oh ho!” said another, whose throat was blue as

an alpine tarn. “A fight! If it’s a fight they’re looking

-for…” He curled the tips of both wings into fists and

glared belligerently at the sky, looking for someone

^Co sock.

” “Watch your blood pressure. Spin,” said the third

? bird. He was slightly less hyperkinetic than his

; companions.

“Watch your rear.” The bird dove on him, and the

‘ithree of them went round and round in the air,

iJabbing with feet, wings, and beaks. When they fmal-

^ly separated, Pandro saw that no harm had been

H-done. None of them was even breathing hard. Two

^ buzzed upward for a sugary drink while the third

;’ regarded the injured visitor sorrowfully.

.^ “That’s the trouble these days. Nobody knows how

^.to have a good fight anymore.”

(“I know civilization’s in a bad way.” Pandro agreed

dryly, “but it’s going to be worse if I don’t carry out

U wy mission.”

^ “Hot damn, a mission!” He danced all around

JrfPandro as the raven stood and tested his wings.

^ Emeralds flashed on his tiny chest.

,, Except for a few missing feathers and the naked

^-•Icar that ran from the back of his neck downward,

^randro seemed to be intact.

; “Yes, a mission for the wizard Opiode, former

}-®hief advisor to the Quorum of Quasequa.”

tit “Never go into Quasequa,” declared the humming”

>ird, shaking its head and forcing Pandro to duck

°ack to avoid the swinging bill. “Nothing going on

lere. Talk about dull.”

, “Cousin, to your kind, everything is dull. Are the

36 Alan Dean Foster

rest of us responsible if you happen to live at a speed

twenty times faster than anyone else’s?”

“No, you’re not,” said the one called Spin. “You

can’t help it if you’re slow and boring. The whole

rest of the world is slow and boring.”

“It’s liable to get exciting real soon,” said Pandro

grimly. “Some weird human’s taken over as chief

advisor in Quasequa. This Opiode’s worried about

what he might do. The newcomer’s a powerful

magician, and Opiode doesn’t seem to think much of

his plans.” He had a sudden horrible thought, and a

wingtip went to his chest. When he clutched the vial

containing the messages, he relaxed. The demons

had ripped off his backpack, but they’d missed the

chain and vial hanging around his neck. A good

thing he’d taken care to put the messages there for


He eyed the sky. “1 guess they think they got me.”

“Who thinks they got you?” asked Oun, the second


“The demons. They must’ve been sent after me by

Markus the Ineluctable, that new advisor I just told

you about. Opiode warned me to watch out, but

there wasn’t anything I could do. They were just too

fast for me”

“Demons, wow!” said Spin. “About time we had a

decent scrap.” He turned to his two companions. “I’ll

go find Wix and the rest of the gang and we’ll—!”

“Hold on a minute,” said Pandro. The humming-

bird pivoted in midair. “You don’t want to go looking

for these things.”

“We’re not afraid of anything that flies”

“I’m sure you’re not, but these were different.” He

shuddered, remembering that cold, barren contact

on the back of his neck. He made a chopping motion

with one wing. “And they’ve got teeth, not just bills.

They’ll take you apart.”


“Condor crap!” snapped the second hummingbird,

^darting through the air and striking out with lefts

1 and rights at imaginary opponents. “We’ll pull their

wings off! We’ll—!”

“Do nothing of the kind,” said the spokesman for

the trio, “because there aren’t any demons around.”

Oun’s crimson chest feathers flashed. “There aren’t?”

^ “Seen any demons lurking about? Either of you?”

is; “Well, no.” Both looked abashed and finally land-

Is ed on the platform. “Not actually.” Spin lifted slightly.

|l “But if Pandro here could lead us to them…”

t The raven shook his head violently. “Thanks, but

; I’ve got a job to do. Anyway, if they were still looking

‘,,-for me, I’m sure you would’ve seen them by now.

They brought me down, but they didn’t kill me.” He

flexed long black wings and rose from the platform.

No damage to the vital shoulder muscles. Consider-

ing that he’d recently missed death by inches, he felt

pretty good.

“Listen, thanks for your help, but I’d better be on

my way. I’m beginning to share some of that

Salamander’s concern about what’s happening in the


“Phooey,” muttered Spin, “who cares what some

^-old wizard thinks?”

“Some might,” said the third flier thoughtfully. He

Stared at Pandro. “Fly high, cousin, and don’t look


“Don’t worry.” Pandro rose skyward. “And while

I’m gone, consider this: Opiode the Sly believes that

^ihis new wizard may have evil designs that extend

^|even beyond Quasequa. Perhaps even to your forest.”

•/IY “Then he better not come here,” hummed Spin,

‘” l?dardng and jabbing at the air, his wings a blur.

I’yFlying demons or no flying demons, we’ll send him

^running without his tailfeathers.”

38 Alan Dean Foster

Pandro’s voice was faint now with distance. “He

doesn’t have any feathers. I told you, he’s a human.”

Spin settled back onto his branch. “A human. Now

what would a human want with us?” He shrugged,

turned to his companion Oun, “What say we go

round up Wix and the rest and have ourselves a

good punch-up anyway?”

“Yeah, sure!” They zoomed toward the next


The third member of the trio held back and

struggled to grasp the import of the raven’s words.

Then he shrugged and flew off to join his friends,

That’s the trouble with being a hummingbird.

One’s attention span is so damned short.


“But I know that she loves me!”Jon-Tom spoke as he

paced back and forth in the turtle’s bedroom. There

was plenty of headroom even for his lanky six feet

two inches because Clothahump had thoughtfully

expanded the internal dimension spell another foot.

For that matter, the entire tree was filled with

rooms that shouldn’t have been, thanks to Clotha-

hump’s wizardry. The turtle wasn’t engaging in any

wizardry now, though- He was lying on his plastron

among the mass of strong cushions which served

him as a bed, his arms crossed under his horny chin.

Only his eyes moved as he followed the nervous

progress of the upset young spellsmger.

“You know, I was once in love myself, lad.”

That revelation was sufficient to halt Jon-Tom in

his tracks- “What… you?”

Raising his head, the turtle peered indignantly at

|jt the tall and tactless young human through hexagonal-

pi tensed glasses-

‘My “And why not me?” He looked suddenly wistful.

ij^lt was about a hundred and sixty years ago. She was

.ytquite attractive- The colors and patterns in her shell

^ reminded one of flatly faceted jewels, and her plas-

^ tron was smooth as polished granite.”

m 39

Alan Dean Foster


“What happened?”

Ctothahump sighed. “She threw me over for a

slick-talking matamata. I believe her tastes were rath-

er kinkier than mine.” His attention snapped back to

the present.

“So I am speaking from some experience, my boy,

when I tell you that this Talea does not love you.

Besides which, you are a spellsinger with a promis-

ing future and can do better- She is nothing but a

petty thief.”

Jon-Tom didn’t turn away from the wizard’s gaze.

“It’s not her profession I’m interested in. She saved

my life and I saved hers and we love each other and

that’s that”

“It is not ‘that’ or anything else,” argued the imper-

turbable turtle. “I do not for an instant deny that she

is brave and courageous. I wish I could also add that

she is thoughtful. Brave and courageous do not

automatically translate into love, however. As for

thoughtful, if she were that and she did indeed love

you, she would be here now.”

Jon-Tom looked uneasy. “Well, you remember how

she is. Flighty, high-strung, nervous, especially around


“Me? Now, boy, why should she be in the slightest

nervous around me?”

“You are the greatest, most powerful sorcerer in

the world. You make a lot of people nervous.”

“Do I? Dear me,” said the turtle, “I thought I only

made a lot of people irritable. Take my advice, my

boy, and put her out of your mind. She will interfere

with your studies, which you neglect as it is.” He

brushed dust from one ot the bed pillows and frowned.

“Have to get Sorbl to clean this place up, if I can

corner the little sot long enough to put a dirt hex on


“Damn it, 1 know that she loves me!” Jon-Tom



spoke with unaccustomed intensity. “I know she does.

1 can feel it. She’s just… she’s just not quite ready to

make it permanent, that’s all. She needs more

reassurance, more encouragement.” He stared at the

wood chips carpeting the floor. “Of course, that

would be easier to do if I had some idea where she


“You’ll never get a wild type like that to settle

down.” Clothahump removed his glasses and squinted

through one eye as he gave them a perfunctory

cleaning, then set them back on his beak. “Why not

just marry her and then go your separate ways?

There’s so much world left for you to see.”

“I warn to see it all with her.” An uncomfortable

pause followed. Then Jon-Tom moved to the bed

and knelt before it. “Look, you’re the greatest wizard

alive. Can’t you help me?”

Clothahump shook his head, wrestled himself into

a sitting position, and crossed his arms over the

compartments in his plastron.

“I must say it is hard to refuse the requests of one

of such perspicacity. I only wish you could find a

more stable possibility for a mate.”

“Talea’s the one I love.”

“What about that Quintera female you brought

over into this world?”

Jon-Tom swallowed, turned, and walked away from

the bed. “Why bring that up? You know it’s a sore

point with me.”

“Why? Because in the end she preferred that

sophisticated hare Caz to you?” Ctothahump shook a

warning finger at him. “That’s what comes of

projecting your own desires onto someone else. She

may have been your physical ideal, but mentally and

emotionally she was neither… and neither is this


“No!” Jon-Tom whirled on the bed. “Talea’s the

Alan Dean Poster


right one. I’m sure of that, even if our relationship is

developing a little, uh, slowly. Come on, Clothahump,

I know you can help if you want to.”

“With what? You want me to mix you up a love

potion to slip into her drink?” He shook his head. “I

don’t deal in those kinds of petty emotionally manip-

ulative devices and you know it. If that’s what you

want, go to the chemist in Lynchbany. I’ll give you a

prescription, but I won’t mix you anything myself.

You’ll be wasting your money, though. Ninety per-

cent of that stuffs no better than what you can buy


“I don’t want your potions or prescriptions, Ctotha-

hump. I want your wise, sage advice.”

“Really? All right. Get a haircut.”

Jen-Tom moaned. His hair was only shoulder-

length, “Not here too. Or do you have a prejudice

against fur because you’ve none of your own?”

The turtle looked down at himself. “My, my, so

you’ve noticed that, have you? I can’t imagine how

one so observant hasn’t been able to win the undying

affection of the woman he thinks loves him.”

“It’s not a question of ‘winning,'” Jen-Tom muttered-

“This isn’t a war.”

“Isn’t it now? Dear me! Perhaps after your first

two hundred years you’ll learn to adjust that view.”

“And don’t lay any of that ‘venerable ancient’ shit

on me, either! I want your advice, not your sarcasm.”

Clothahump peered over his glasses. “If you want

to learn what love is all about, my boy, you’d better

learn to handle sarcasm.”

Jon-Tom shifted to another tack. “I’ve been work-

ing on a song for her,”

“If you think you can spellsing her into love with

you, my boy, then you—”

“No, no, just a friendly little song to show her how



I feel about her. I’ve always been better at conveying

my emotions through music. Want to hear it?”

Clothahump muttered under his breath, “Do I

have a choice?”

Jon-Tom walked over to the comer where he’d set

down his duar and picked up the peculiar, double-

stringed instrument. He caressed it lovingly. It had

brought him through some tough spots, that duar.

It, and his ability to make magic with it, however

erratic and unpredictable.

“Just something to put her in the right mood,” he

assured Clothahump. “I’ve been trying to remember

what she likes so I can sing about it the next time we


“Sing about a rich drunk lying alone in an alley,”

Clothahump suggested.

Jon-Tom ignored the gibe. “I remember her tell-

ing me one time how much she liked roses. She said

they were pretty. She’d never use the word ‘romantic.’

Talea’s not the romantic type- But she said she liked

their smell and the way they went with her hair. So

I’ve been trying to think of a song about roses. It

wasn’t easy. It’s not the sort of thing my favorite

musicians like to write songs about, and I have to be

careful or I’ll wind up with that amazonic tigress I

told you about.

“Anyhow, I finally settled on this. I’d like your

opinion of it.”

“Hold on a moment, boy. I want none of your

hit-and-miss spellsinging in my home. If you feel the

need to practice, do it outside.”

“Oh, it’s all right.” Jon-Tom found himself a seat

1 on a strong shelf. “It’s just a Hide tune. I’m not going

to do any spellsinging.”

Clothahump eyed him warily. “Well, if you’re sure..”

Jen-Tom smiled confidently at him. “Sure I’m

sure. What could be dangerous about a song about

44 Alan Dean Foster

something as innocent as roses?” He let his fingers

fall lightly across the first set of strings, then the

second, adjusted the control for tremble ever so


The chords floated through the room, soothing

and mellow, not nearly as sharp or discordant as

Jon-Tbm’s heavy metal favorites. Clothahump relented.

“All right, boy.” He moved as far back on the bed

as he was able. “If you’re certain you know what

you’re doing and have everything under control.”

Jon-Tom smiled reassuringly and began to sing.

The music was lovely, but that didn’t relax Clothahump.

He was watching and listening to more than the


Sure enough, there it was: an intense red glow

near the foot of the bed.

“Boy, see there, I told you…!”

But Jon-Tom wasn’t listening to his mentor. He

was transported to the kingdom of love by images of

how Talea would react to this song, composed specially

for her by the man who adored her.

The intense, blood-red ball of light hung in the

air, throwing off red sparks as Jon-Tom’s voice rose

passionately. Clothahump waved anxiously at it and

was pleased to see it fall to the floor and disappear.

He let out a relieved sigh and narrowed his gaze as

he waited for Jon-Tom to finish his song. So he did

not see the branches that sprang forth from beneath

the carpet of wood chips. They grew with astonishing


Jon-Tom concluded his chorus and looked proud.

“There, you see? Nothing to worry about. I’ve

been working hard on my control, and I think I’ve

gotten it to the point where I only conjure up what I

want to.” His expression changed to one of curiosity.

“That’s funny. I don’t remember your planting any-

thing at the foot of your bed.”



Fearing the worst, Clothahump tumbled forward

to peer over the edge of the bed. Growing out of the

floor was a small, nicely pruned collection of thin

branches. As they both watched, some two dozen

American beauty blossoms erupted from the naked


“Hey, how about that?” said Jon-Tom, delighted.

“Now I ask you, what girl could resist that?”

“Well,” Clothahump said reluctantly, “1 have to

admit that’s quite a charming little bouquet you’ve

called up.”

Jon-Tom netted the duar. “I didn’t even get to the

second chorus. What color would you like this time?

How about a nice canary yellow?” He sang again,

and this time the second bush appeared sooner than

its predecessor. It was also twice as tall and, sure

enough, heavy with fragrant yellow blooms.

“Nothing to it. I told you I’ve been practicing my


Clothahump stared at the bush. “Good. Then you

can stop it now.”

Jon-Tom’s jaw hung a little slack. “Uh, stop what?”

“Stop it from growing.”

“But I have stopped. I’m not singing anymore.”

Clothahump pointed. “Tell it to that rosebush.”

Indeed, it didn’t take especially sharp vision to see

that the bush was continuing to expand. It was

almost up to the roof. When it hit the ceiling, the

branches began to spread out sideways, throwing out

shoots and blossoms in every direction.

“No sweat. I’ll just sing the final chorus. That

ought to finish it.” He proceeded to do so, the words

falling gentle and sweet on the now heavily aromatic

air of the bedroom.

It had absolutely no effect on the fecund rose-

bush, which continued to spread out across the walls.

Having covered ceiling and sides, branches began to

40 Alan Dean Foster

fill the room, crisscrossing and occasionally running

into one another. Some of the stems were now as

thick as birch trunks. The room was shaking.

“That’s enough, boy!” Clothahump was hemmed

in against the headboard of his bed. Jon-Tom was

trying to edge his way toward the near doorway, had

to duck as two sapling-thick branches boasting three-

inch-long thorns tried to block his exit.

“I… I don’t understand. I’m not singing any-


“You bet your ass you’re not, lad.” Clothahump

struggled with one drawer in his plastron, finally

yanked it open. “Got to lubricate these one of these

days.” The drawer finally popped open and he rum-

maged around inside himself. “Hope I can stop it


“Before what?” wondered the thoroughly distraught

Jon-Tom as he stumbled back from an encroaching

branch. It vomited a three-foot-wide blossom in his

face, and the burst of perfume made him dizzy.

“Before these damned things start growing out of

us,” Clothahump shouted at him.

His path to the door blocked, Jon-Tom scrambled

across the floor toward the only remaining open

section of the room . -. Clothahump’s bed.

“Maybe I overdid it a little bit”

“My boy, your powers of observation and your

innate ability to intuit the blatantly obvious never

cease to amaze me. Ah, there!” He removed a small

box from his plastron, shoved the drawer shut, and

opened the box. From within he selected a pinch of

white powder and leaned forward.

“Roots and shoots and cellulose

Blossoms that be profane

Dwell in lands of malathane


Make thy xylum comatose

Dry up thy tannic staint”

He threw the powder into the advancing thorns. It

evaporated. The cluster of branches seemed to

shudder, to slow… and finally, to petrify.

They were surrounded, engulfed by beauty. Jon-

Tom felt sure he was going to throw up.

He took a step toward the door which led into

Clothahump’s laboratory, found he couldn’t move

more than a few inches off the cushions before

swordlike thorns pricked his legs. He retreated back

onto the bed.

“Sorry,” he whispered morosely. The smell of roses

was overwhelming.

Clothahump sighed, gave him a fatherly pat on the

back. ‘That’s all right, tad. We’re all a little overconfi-

dent now and again. You were right about one thing,

though. If your ladylove were here, I’ve no doubt she’d

be impressed with this little floral tribute of yours… if

she wasn’t cut to ribbons first. I will say this for your

spellsinging: you don’t seem able to do anything in a

small way” At least a thousand blossoms of all shades

and hues kept them imprisoned on the bed.

“There’s nothing basically the matter with your

spellsinging, my boy. But you are going to have to

work at moderating your enthusiasm a bit.” He eyed

his bedroom appraisingly. “An impressive, though

difficult to deliver, bouquet.”

Tucking his head down inside his shell until only

the crown was visible, he slid off the bed and waded

out into the brambles, quite safe from the thorns.

They couldn’t penetrate his body armor, but neither

did he have the strength to force a path through

them. Finally he gave up and returned to the bed.

“It’s no good, lad. I’m neither as young nor agile

as I once was.”

Alan Dean Foster


“How about a spell?”

Clothahump’s reply to that suggestion was tart.

“You spelled this jungle up: you unspell it.”

Jon-Tom’s fingers twisted against each other. “I

don’t think I ought to try that.”

Clothahump looked dazed. “What’s that? What’s

this? Some small hint of humility? How gratifying.

Today we pass another signpost on the road to

wisdom.” A powerful, resonant voice interrupted his



“Drat, that’s the bell,” the wizard groused. “Why

am 1 blessed with visitors who have such wonderful


They waited patiently on the bed. Minutes later an

uncertain voice called to them from the vicinity of

the doorway.

“Uh, Master?” They could just make out the four-

foot-tall shape of Clothahump’s apprentice standing

in the opening. For a wonder, Sorbl sounded almost

sober this morning. That was something of a magic


“There is someone at the door, Master.”

“We know that, you idiot,” said Clothahump with a

grimace. “We heard the bell too. Who is at the door?”

“He says he’s come a long ways on a mission of

great importance. Master.”

“Don’t they all.”

“His name is Pandro. He’s a raven and he says he

comes from a city named Quasequa.”

Suddenly Clothahump was more interested than

indifferent. “Quasequa, you say? Well, I have not

heard from anyone in that distant land in some time.

I recall mention of a young sorcerer of some promise,

a fellow name of Opiode, who was trying to set

himself up in business down there.”



“That’s who’s sent him here, sir!” said Sorbl excitedly.

“This Pandro says it’s most urgent.”

“Opiode, yes, that was the name. Though I can’t

be certain. My memory’s not what it used to be. I’ll

see him, though.” The turtle’s tone darkened. “You

> will not offer him any liquid refreshment stronger

than fruit juice!”

“Master, I? Do you think that I… ?”

“Yes, I do. Now, shut up, see him comfortably in,

and inform him I’ll be along directly. Then go to the

storage bin outside the parlor. Inside you’ll find

some large wood clippers. Bring them back here and

cut us out of my bedroom. Then, while we are

listening to this visitor’s tale, you may take the re-

mainder of the day to prune around my bed.”

The owl let out a resigned sigh. “As you direct,

Master.” A brief pause, then, “Would it be improper

of me to ask what happened here?”

“Not at all. You should find it instructive. This

E minor botanical catastrophe sprang from the heart

of our young spellsinger here. He is in love, you see.

One would tend to say he has a green thumb. The

^ actual problem, however, lies with the protuberance

which arises from between his shoulders.”

^ It was a mild enough reprimand and Jon-Tom

fought to accept it gracefully. Lest he do additional

damage, he forced himself to put all thoughts of

the beauteous Talea aside and concentrate instead on

*the potential import of whatever this far-ranging

truest might have to say.

|^ Clothahump’s spell-sharpened shears soon cut a

11″ tunnel to them through the tangled growth, and the

^ two of them were able to crawl to freedom.

iffl ‘

“^ “A good job,” the wizard complimented his appren-

; .^- lice. “Now clean out the rest of it, but leave those

•^ pink blooms over there, the ones under the window.

Alan Dean Foster


They’re rather attractive, and that part of the floor’s

always damp anyway.”

“Yes, Master.” They left him hacking away with the

shears at Clothahump’s bedchamber.

The raven awaited them on the guest perch which

had been installed by Clothahump for the comfort of

winged visitors. He might have come a long ways,

but he didn’t look particularly fatigued to Jon’Tbm.

Of more interest was the bruise on his forehead, the

feathers missing from one wing, and the ugly scar

which ran down the back of his neck. The wounds

looked recent, and Jon-Tom wondered if they had

anything to do with the raven’s reason for coming to

the Bellwoods.

If Clothahump noticed any of this, he gave no

sign, preferring instead to stare grimly at the

widemouthed glass from which the raven was sip-

ping decorously.

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?” said the raven uncertainly, looking

up as they entered. “Oh, this?” He gestured with the

glass. “A drink, and nice and strong, too- I sure as

hell needed it. Thanks to your—”

“1 know who to thank,” rumbled Clothahump

dangerously, “He did not by any chance have one

himself? Just to prove that he could be a proper


Before the raven could reply, the wizard had whirled

and was clomping angrily back toward his bedroom.


Jon-Tom and Pandro eyed each other uncomfort-

ably for a couple of minutes until Clothahump


“I’ll be lucky if he has my bedroom cleaned out by

nightfall, and he’ll be lucky if he doesn’t cut off one

of his own feet in the process- I’ll deal with him


Her.” He calmed himself as he gazed over at his


“Please pardon the interruption. Now then. Your

| name is Pandro and you come from far Quasequa?”

\. The raven put his glass aside on the shelf that was

^attached to the perch- “That’s right, sir.”

I “That is quite a journey.”

I “Tell me about it.” Pandro fluttered to the floor

•and hopped over to stand close to them. “Keep in

: mind that I’m just a hired messenger. I’m not

[ completely sure what this is all about. I could tell you

what I know, but 1 imagine these documents I was

instructed to deliver to you will explain what’s going

; on in my country much better than I could.” He

| removed the papers from the cylinder hanging from

| his neck chain.

[ “These come from Opiode, former chief advisor

‘ in matters arcane and mystic to the Quorum of

| Quasequa.”

” ‘Former’?” Clothahump peered at the messages

through his thick glasses. “Um.” He turned to read


Jon-Tbm tried to make conversation. “What hap-

Ipened to your neck?”

| Instinctively, a wing felt of the recently acquired

ground. “I was attacked while on my way here. Some-

tone or something wanted to make sure I didn’t n^ake

|cay delivery.”

| “Who attacked you?”

| “Demons.” Pandro said with admirable casualness.

I^Taceless demons. Gray and black they were, with

pong curved teeth and no eyes.”

•is. It wasn’t the explanation Jon-Tom expected, and

^he was more than a little taken aback. “You don’t

‘ IW

• • “They were demons,” Pandro insisted, mistaking

Jim-Tom’s surprise for disbelief. “I know a demon

Alan Dean Poster

when I see one, let alone when it tries to take my

head off.”

“I wasn’t disputing you,” Jon-Tom replied.

The raven studied him with interest. “You’re the

biggest human I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m also a spellsinger,” Jon-Tom told him proudly.

Clothahump .spoke without looking up from his

reading. “That he is. If you want to see a demonstra-

tion of his powers, have a look in the next room


“It doesn’t matter. It’s not very impressive,” Jon-

Tom said hastily. “This wizard Opiode: you work for


“I was only hired to make this single delivery. I’m

not in his regular service, if that’s what you mean.”

Clothahump concluded his perusal of the papers

with a noncommittal grunt. “This doesn’t sound too

serious, even though Opiode’s language borders on

the hysterical- Certainly not important enough to

warrant my personal attention. Still, if he feels he

needs help, I suppose it is incumbent on me to

provide some.” He turned back to face the raven.

“This new advisor, this Markus the Ineluctable

Opiode refers to: have you met him?”

Pandro shook his head. “I just run a small messen-

ger service. I don’t get into the halls of the Quorumate

Complex much. No, I haven’t met him. From what

I’ve heard, not many have. Keeps to himself a lot.

But there are plenty of stories about him. And about

his peculiar powers.”

“And he’s a human?”

Pandro nodded. “That’s what they say.”

Clothahump examined the papers again. “A hu-

man who claims to have come here from another


Jon-Tom felt suddenly faint -,. but not so faint that

he couldn’t interrupt with anxious questions.



“Another world! Tell me, does he sing his magic,

spellsing like 1 do, or use a musical instrument when

he’s exercising his powers?”

Pandro flinched, taken aback by the gangling young

human’s unexpected enthusiasm. “Not that I’ve heard,

sir, no. It’s said that he whispers his spells so that

none can hear him. I haven’t heard anyone mention


“It is not used,” said Clothahump, “or Opiode

would have mentioned it in his communication. The

rest he does confirm, however.” He was watching

Jon-Tom carefully. “A human magician who claims to

have come here from another world.”

“It’s possible,” said Jon-Tom excitedly. “Don’t you

think it’s possible? It happened once, to me. Why

not to another?”

“All things are possible- However, just because you

have a good heart and good intentions does not

mean that this new visitor is as good and kind as

yourself, or that he even comes from your world.

The plenum is full of other worlds.”

“That’s right,” said Jen-Torn, momentarily downcast.

“I got so excited I forgot about that.”

“In fact,” the wizard went on, still eyeing the

‘papers, “from what Opiode says, this Markus ap-

; pears to be sadly lacking in the social verities. Opiode

• is not only afraid of what the newcomer has done;

he is even more afraid of what he may intend to do

anext. As for the visitor’s magic, it is powerful indeed.”

L’He folded the papers.

I “This is none of my business. I’m not one to

[insinuate myself into another wizard’s difficulties.

Opiode admits that this Markus defeated him in a

battle of talents. These ‘fears’ he alludes to may

merely be a reflection of his own disappointments.

And he speaks only of worries and concerns, not of

any actual threat. I see no reason for such panic.

Alan Dean Foster

This Markus hasn’t instituted any sort of reign of

terror or inquisition or anything so boring since

assuming Optode’s office, has he?”

**No sir,” Pandro admitted. “As far as the average

citizen is concerned, nothing’s changed. At least, not

insofar as I’ve seen. Of course,” he added thoughtfully,

“I was attacked on my way here, and the forest where

I encountered my assailants is not noted for having a

large demonic population.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Clothahump murmured. “1 am

not familiar with that part of the world. What do you

think of all this, Jon-Tom?”

Sorcerer and spellsinger discussed the matter while

Pandro stood and waked quietly. While hardly an

experienced judge of wizardry qualities, if asked, he

would have had to confess that Opiode was whistling

up the wrong trunk if he expected to get any aid

from this bunch. The apprentice who’d ushered him

inside was an obvious drunk, the turtle showed signs

of senility, and the tail human struck the cosmopoli-

tan Pandro as something of a hick.

Still, surely Opiode the Sly knew what he was

doing in sending here for help. And what was it they

were arguing about?

“I’m telling you, this guy’s from my own world,

from my home!” Jon-Tom was saying. “He’s got to

be. Transported here by accident, just like me.”

“There have been no recent disturbances in the

ether as there were when I brought you over,”

Clothahump told him.

“Maybe he crossed over in a different way. Do you

know of every path between the dimensions?”

“No,” Clothahump admitted, a mite huffily. “As I

said before, all things are possible. All 1 am saying

now is that there is nothing to suggest that this

Markus the ineluctable came over from your world.

For one thing, according to Opiode, this fellow seems



to have been practicing his magic for quite a while,

whereas you discovered your spellsinging ability pure-

ly by accident and only after you had been in this

world for some time. Furthermore, all this blather of

coming from another world may merely be typical

wizardly showmanship, an attempt to cow and over-

awe impressionable Quasequans. There are many

humans in this world, as you well know. This Markus

may not be a transdimensional traveler; he may be

nothing more than a slick talker. Remember, my boy,

that your materialization here was an accident.”

“Maybe this isn’t an accident,” Jon-Tom argued.

“Maybe some wizard from another world has found

a way to cross over on his own.”

“As I recall, there are no wizards in your own


Jon-Tom slumped. “I know. But maybe he was

something else. Maybe he’s an engineer like you

thought I was, and he can make magic here by

reciting engineering theorems, or something. The

point is, Fve got to know. Don’t you see, Clothahump?

If he got through on purpose, by design, maybe he

can return home the same way. Maybe with the two

;of us working together we can manage a way home

; for both of us!”

‘• Clothahump was nodding. “That is how I thought

you would react to this information, my boy. Well, it’s

only natural that you should be excited. 1 certainly

will not stand in the way of your finding out.”




Pandro had been silent long enough.

“Look here, I’m not at all sure what you two are

talking about any more than I knew what Opiode \

was talking about. Like I said, I’m just a messenger.” 3

He gestured with a wingtip toward the papers ^

Clothahump held- “One thing Opiode did tell me,

though. He said that if this Markus is truly from

another world, then it must be a place of evil and

darkness.” He eyed Jon-Tom uneasily.

“And you say you’re maybe from the same place?”

“Maybe. We’ve no reason to believe that yet,” .

Clothahump replied. T

“Well, he’s sure peculiar-looking, but according to ^

the descriptions I’ve heard, mighty different from ^

this Markus the Ineluctable.”

“What’s he supposed to be like?” asked Jon-Tom


“Definitely human. Tall, but much shorter than

you. Fat, and older. Not much fur left on his head.”

Jen-Tom was nodding. “He could be an engineer

from my world.”

“And it’s said he still wears the clothes he was

wearing when he came into our world.”

“Tell me about them, describe them! Does he wear


jeans—pants of rough blue material? Or maybe a

suit, something with a long V-shaped opening in the

front, with a white shirt underneath, and maybe a

long strip of material tied around his neck?”

“No,” said Pandro thoughtfully, “the description

that I heard was somewhat different. I was told he

dresses entirely in black of some slick, finely woven

material, with a black cape to match, and a strange

black tower atop his head, and a spot of petrified

blood he keeps always over his heart.”

“That doesn’t sound very familiar,” Jon-Tom re-

plied slowly. And he’d been so positive!

“From another world, perhaps, but not necessarily

yours,” Clothahump told him. “Interesting. Not nec-

essarily dangerous, but interesting.”

“Even if he is from your own world, sir,” Pandro

told Jon-Tom, “1 wouldn’t plan on him helping you

to get back to wherever you’re from. From what

Opiode says, this magician helps no one but himself.”

“Maybe because he’s frightened,” Jen-Tom suggested.

“Maybe if by working together, the both of us can

return home, he’ll turn out to be much less threaten-


“If you can get him to leave, regardless of how you

help yourself, sir, all of Quasequa would be grateful”

He hesitated. “Opiode did not say as much, but

there are rumors that this Markus has plans for

• doing away with the Quorum and installing himself

as an emperor or king or something. That would be

a disaster for Quasequa. We have no tradition of

powerful, single rulers. I think what Opiode the Sly

is saying is that now is the time to stop the newcomer

before he can put any evil designs into effect.”

“y he has any such intentions. That may be noth-

ing more than your employer’s paranoia at work.”

‘That is something Opiode felt you would sense,

Alan Dean Foster


sir. He said that you were wise and knowledgeable,

brave and bold.”

Clothahump removed his glasses, spoke while clean-

ing them. “Even as a student, I recall this Opiode

being somewhat of a stickler for accurate descriptions”

“I wish I could tell you more, sirs, but I am only a


“You’ve done better than could have been expected

of you.”

“So you will send help?” asked Pandro hopefully.

“Certainly I will.”

“You’ll come yourself?”

“I will send help,” Clothahump said firmly. “You

may convey that message to Opiode. I’m sure he

expects some sort of reply, and that should cheer

him. As for specifics, I prefer not to divulge my

methodology to the hired help.”

“I understand, sir,” said Pandro, bowing and

finishing his stiff drink. He set the glass aside and

headed for the front door. “Any other messages,


“Sorbl. Sorbl!” Clothahump yelled. “Never mind.

I’ll do it myself.” The door swung inward at the flick

of his hand. It was a tiny magic, very minor wizardry,

but it impressed Pandro nonetheless. A good impres-

sion the raven would carry with him all the way back

to Quasequa.

“No, no other message. Tell Opiode if he feels the

need to convey additional information to me to send

you back again.”

“Oh, no, sir! He may send more information back

to you. but I won’t be bringing it. I’ve had enough of

wizardly goings-on. Humans from other worlds, face-

less demons, no thank you, sirs! I’ll inform him

you’re sending help down to Quasequa and I’m sure-

he will be heartened by that, but if he wants to thank


you he can do it himself. I’ve had more than enough

of such doings. Never again.”

“Don’t you mean ‘nevermore’?” Jon-Tom asked


Pandro eyed him oddly for a moment before bow-

ing a last time. Then he left, closing the heavy

wooden door behind him.

“Hope for the better rather than for the worst,”

said Jon-Tom after the raven had taken his leave.

*TU start packing our supplies.”

Clothahump coughed softly. “What do you mean

*our* supplies, my boy?”

Jon-Tom hailed in mid-stride. “Now, wait a minute.

What about all that business about your being

‘courageous, brave, and bold’?”

“Dear me, is that what he said?” Clothahump was

studying the ceiling. “I thought certain he said

‘courageous, brave, and old.’ Because that is an accu-

rate description. In any case, I’m certainly not about

to leave my work here to embark on some long hike

simply to salve the injured feelings of a deposed

wizard. As 1 said, this hardly sounds to me like a


“No crisis, eh? Some evil sorcerer from another

world throws a colleague of yours out of office and is

scheming to take over an entire city with who-knows-

what eventual aims in mind, and you don’t call that a


“It’s not my city, and I’m not the one who’s been

deposed. As for Opiode the Sly’s being a colleague.

I’ve never worked with him and know of him only by


/ “That’s one hell of a cold attitude.”

“I would rather say realistic. However, I did say I

would send help, and so I shall. You are so con-

vinced that this Markus the Ineluctable is from your

world that I wouldn’t think of putting off the day of

Alan Dean Poster


that meeting by so much as an hour. I would only

slow you down, my boy.” He indicated the duar

Jon-Tbm cradled against his side.

“You can handle anything that comes before you.

You now know enough of this land and have mastered

sufficient of your spellsinging skills to extricate your-

self from any minor difficulties.” He grinned. “Should

this Markus turn out to be as belligerent as Opiode

feels, you can always threaten him with a bouquet.’*

Jen-Torn gave the wizard a sour look. “What would

I do without your confidence and support?”

“Oh, I support you, my boy, I support you. Your

talent is developing nicely. I merely try to keep a

close watch on the diameter of your head, lest in a

dangerous moment of overconfidence it grow too


“Opiode desires speed in this matter and so do

you. I would be an encumbrance to you both. I am

quite confident of your ability to manage this matter

on your own.”

“What if he’s not from my world?” wondered

Jon-Tom, suddenly thoughtful. “What if he is some

strange demonic being in human guise? That raven’s

description of his attire and his attitude, those don’t

make him sound much like an old friend from back


“Then you must deal with him as the circum-

stances dictate,” the wizard told him firmly. “I can’t

wet-nurse you through maturity.”

“I’m already mature.”

“Then act like it.” He winced. “Besides, my arthri-

tis is acting up.”

“Funny how your arthritis always seems to act up

whenever there’s a long journey to be taken.”

“Yes, it is peculiar, isn’t it?” Clothahump admitted

without batting an eye. He lumbered toward his

bedroom, peered through the doorway. “Ah! Sorbl


has excavated my bed. I can hear him shearing away

in there. Presumably he is not so drunk that he has

cut off either of his wings.” He raised his voice.

“Sorbll How are you managing in there, you useless

befeathered sot?”

“I am tired. Master,” came the faint reply from

somewhere deep within the thorny brambles. “These

vines are tough.” A pause, then, “Can’t you just

magic them away?”

“Perhaps I could, but I did not acquire an appren-

tice so that I might engage in menial labor. Besides,

a little exercise is good for the system, especially

when that system is overloaded with ethyl molecules.”

“With what. Master?”

“Liquorish magical symbols.”

“Not me, Masteri I would never—I”

Clothahump closed the door to the rosebush-ridden

bedroom, shutting off Sorbl’s too-emphatic protesta-

tions of innocence. He turned back to jon-Tom,

peered up at him over steepled lingers.

“Opiode has a reputation for exaggeration, my

boy, and all salamanders are notoriously paranoid. I

know that you will enjoy the journey to Quasequa. It

will be a long but pleasant trip. The city itself is

rumored to be most beautiful, constructed on a

series of islands out in the middle of a body of water

called the Lake of Sorrowful Pearls. If 1 were a hun-

dred years younger, I would not hesitate to accompa-

ny you.”

jon-Tbm was nodding knowingly. “Sounds delightful.

In fact, it sounds a lot like our recent relaxing

vacation jaunt to distant Snarken.”

Clothahump shifted his eyes away from the tall

youth- “Ah, any excursion can be dogged by unforeseen

bad luck.” He cleared his throat self-consciously. “This

time you will encounter no oceans to cross, no mo-

rose moors to traverse. Merely shallow tropical lakes

03 Alan Dean Footer

and lagoons, such as the one on which Quasequa

itself is constructed. A land of moderate tempera-

tures and quiet beauty. A veritable paradise com-

pared to these cold Bellwoods. Often’s the time I’ve

thought of traveling there with an eye toward retir-

ing in such a place.”

“You’ll never retire. You like your reputation too


“No, 1 mean it, my boy. Someday I will consider

it seriously. Perhaps when I turn three hundred.”

“When you hit three hundred 1 hope I won’t be

around to see it.”

“Yes, your unquenchable desire to return home.

Perhaps this Markus the Ineluctable will turn out to

be helpful.”

“You’re just trying to make me feel better about

going off without you, but you’re right. I’d go

anywhere, under any conditions, if I thought there

was a chance I could get a little closer to home.”

“And what of Opiode’s concerns?”

“Maybe he exaggerates, just like you say. If this

Markus is from my own world, I’m sure that if the

two of us can get together and chat for a while, he’ll

be as happy to see me as I will be to see him, and we

can work something out”

“And if he’s not of your world, and Opiode does

not exaggerate?”

Jen-Tom took a deep breath. “In that case, I’ve got

my duar. If it comes to a battle of sorceral skills, I

think I can handle anything.” Except my own mistakes,

he added silently to himself-

“Good for you, my boy! That’s the spirit! Main-

tain that attitude and I’m sure you’ll have things in

Quasequa sorted out in no time.”

Jon-Tom looked uncertain. “There is one drawback.

I can’t make a journey like that all by myself. Oh, I

understand if you don’t feel up to coming along or



don’t feel it’s necessary, or whatever. But I won’t risk

a trip like this all by my lonesome. I know that flier

wouldn’t have guided me. Not his job, and fliers get

bored having to hang back with us land-bound types.

That much I’ve learned. What about making use of

public transportation systems along the way?”

“A good thought, except that there aren’t any, my

boy. There is no commerce between the Bellwoods

towns and Quasequa. All trade from Lynchbany and

Timswitty and the like goes to the Glittergeist Sea or


“Then I’d like to have an old buddy accompany


Clothahump shook his head sadly. “I wonder that

your choice of company does not otherwise mirror

your normal good taste.”

“1 Just feel comfortable with Mudge around. He’s

clever with words, knows the customs and ins and

outs, is good with weapons, and is reasonably trust-

worthy so long as I keep an eye on him round the

dock and don’t let him get his paws on the expense


Clothahump shrugged beneath his shell. “It’s your

neck, my boy. You choose your own companions.”

Jon-Tom frowned. “The only problem is, I haven’t

the slightest idea where he’s to be found. Last time I

had to track him all the way up to Timswitty. Since

Quasequa lies in the other direction, I’d lose a lot of

time if I had to hunt through the Bellwoods in..

search of him.” He Finished on a hopeful note-

“I agree. And don’t give me that innocent-apprentice

look. It doesn’t have the slightest effect on me.

However, if you will insist on having him with you…”

“1 wouldn’t insist,” Jon-Tom said quickly. “It would

Just make me a lot more confident about the whole


“Very well, very well. I will see what I can do. I will

Alan Dean Fowter


attempt to locate him and explain that he is wanted


“As for yourself, you’d best begin preparing for

the journey. Fill your backpack with care, make cer-

tain you have ample spare strings for your duar, and

try to get a good night’s sleep. 1 will be able to

discuss this matter of your ‘friend’ with more certainty

tomorrow rooming.”

“How long do you think it will take for you to

locate him and give him the message?”

“We will just have to wait and see, my boy. We will

have to wait and see.”

Jen-Tom arose the next morning still excited by

the prospect of meeting someone else from home,

someone who might be able to help him get back

where he belonged. It wasn’t that Clothahump hadn’t

been good to him- In his own distinctive, demanding

fashion, the wizard had gone out of his way to make

the displaced human feel welcome.

Nor had his sojourn in this land. been uneventful.

Quite the contrary. But he was more than ready to

return to the calm, familiar life of an anxiety-ridden

pre-law student in Weslwood, CA.

He washed his hands and face in the wooden basin

that grew from one of the tree’s inner walls, wonder-

ing not for the first time what kind of intricate

magical spell could provide indoor plumbing within

the dimensionally expanded trunk of an oak. After

drying himself and dressing carefully, he went through

the contents of his backpack.

It held jerked meat, dried fruit and nuts, a selec-

tion of medicinal herbs and potions, a small metal

box holding the few Band-Aids and pills he’d had on

his person when he’d been sucked into this world, a

change of underclothing, and a small assortment of

toiletry items and personal effects. Packed to bursting,

it was heavier than it had been when he’d set out on



a previous journey to distant Snarken. On that trip

Clolhahump had informed him he would encounter

towns and villages in which to purchase food and

other necessities. The land between here and Quase-

qua, however benign, was apparently a good deal

less urbanized.

That meant living more off the land. Well, he’d

always enjoyed camping out, and if Clothahump’s

description of the country south of the river Tailaroam

was accurate, it should be a relaxing experience-

First breakfast, then he’d ask if the wizard had

succeeded in locating Mudge. Probably he’d have to

meet the otter somewhere. A couple of quick hellos,

and off they’d go, traveling at a brisk but unhurried

pace southward, enjoying the clear weather while

reminiscing about—

A terrible scream split this image and pushed

everything else into the background. It pierced the

thick walls of living wood. was followed by a second

and third. Each howl was more horrible than its

predecessor. Jon-Tom’s skin prickled.

His first thought was that Markus the Ineluctable

was everything Opiode feared and more, and that

he’d somehow tracked the course of Pandro the

raven and had sent his faceless demons to do away

with any potential allies the flier might have made

contact with. Jon-Tom grabbed his ramwood staff

and rushed for the next rooms.

He flicked the concealed switch in the wooden

shaft, and six inches of sharp steel emerged from the

base of the staff. If only he wasn’t too late and

whatever had entered the tree hadn’t gotten ahold of

Clothahumpi The screams continued, but their inten-

sity had fallen somewhat. They seemed to be coming

from the vicinity of the kitchen. He turned down a

narrow hall, keeping his head low, and bounced off a

Alafi Dean Porter


wall, then skidded to a halt just inside the dining


Clothahump sat in his reinforced chair next to the

table that grew out of the floor. He was spooning

ground fish and water plant from a steaming bowl.

A tall glass of murky, aged pond water stood nearby.

Heat rose from the iron cookstove where Sorbl la-

bored diligently over two bubbling pots and baking

bread. As he watched, the owl dropped from the

perch welded to the front of the stove, slid a couple

of fried mice out of the oven -and slipped them

between slices of fresh bread, and began to munch

on his own breakfast. The bread smelled delicious.

At the moment, though, his thoughts were not on

food. Instead, he stared openmouthed at the con-

struction which had appeared in the middle of the


It was a cage, and not a very elegant cage at that.

Six feet tall and three or four square, it seemed to

hover in midair a foot or so above the kitchen tiles. It

had six sides instead of four. Instead of bars, thin

threads connected top and bottom. They did not

ripple in the heat of the room. They did not move at


Not even when the berserk, spitting, squalling

creature caged within chose to bang against them

with its body. It bounced off as if the threads were

fashioned of inch-thick steel. It used its shoulders

because its arms were tied to its sides. In fact, the

occupant of the cage wore a mummylike cylinder of

heavy rope that encased him from ankle to neck.

“Good morning, my boy,” said Clothahump cheerily,

as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

“Have some breakfast?”

“In a minute.” Jon-Tom put his staff aside. He

moved into the kitchen and walked slowly around

the hovering cage, never taking his eyes from it.



With a finger, he tested one of the threads. It

refused to move no matter how hard he pushed or

pulled on it. He had to pull away fast because the

bound creature inside tried to bite off his finger.

Sharp teeth just managed to nick his skin. He sucked

on the thin cut.

“I’m sorry, Mudge,” he said, “but I didn’t have

anything to do with this.”

“Oi now, didn’t you, you stretched-out offspring of

an otherworldly bitch? You slippery sliver-tongued

bastard. Of course you didn’t ‘ave nothin’ to do with

it, you and that calcified lump of solid bone wot calls

‘imself a sorcerer.”

Clothahump ignored this tirade and continued to

slurp daintily at his meal.

“Don’t give me that crap, matel You and ‘im *ave

always been in league with one another against me.

Don’t try to deny it! ‘Tis been that way all along.”

Jon-Tom continued to suck on the Finger his friend

had attempted to amputate, spoke quietly. “He was

just supposed to find you and send you a message.”

He turned to face the wizard. “You were just sup-

posed to send him a message.”

Clothahump considered, the spoon halfway to his

mouth. “I did send a message, my boy, and you were

correct in your concerns. He was quite a distance

away, in a town near Kreshfarm-in-the-Geegs.”

“It weren’t far enough!” Mudge howled. He tried

to sit down, but the enveloping ropes prevented the

maneuver, and he had to settle for leaning up against

the threads. “Seems it’ll never be far enough to get

me away from you two arseholes! It won’t stop me

from tryin’, though. I’ll never stop tryin’l” He glared

accusingly at Jen-Tom.

“Why, mate? I thought after that little sea voyage I

*elped you out with we were even up.”

Jen-Tom found himself unable to meet the otter’s

Alan Dean Foster


gaze. “We were… as far as that particular trip was

concerned. Unfortunately, something new has come

up.” He tried to smile. “You know how highly I value

your company and assistance.”

“And you want good old ‘appy-go-lucky Mudge

along to ‘old your bleedin* ‘and, right? Or maybe to

push you along in your pram?”

When Jon-Tom didn’t reply, the otter turned his

attention back to the kitchen table. “Untie me, you

disgustin’ ball of reptilian corruption, or when I get

out of ‘ere, I swears I’ll shove you in on yourself and

cement up all the openin’s!”

“Now, now.” Clothahump dabbed delicately at his

mouth with a linen napkin. “Let us remember who

we are talking to.”

“Oh, I know who I’m talkin’ to, all right. The

world’s master meddler. I don’t care anymore, you

see? So I can say wotever I want. Turn me into a

snake, turn me into a worm, even turn me into a

bloody ‘uman. See if I care. Because you’ve gone too

far this time, the two of you, and I’ve ‘ad it! I’m not

goin’ anywhere.” He nodded in Jon-Tom’s direction.

“Especially not with ‘im. Not across any oceans, not

into any fights, not to the local market to buy chestnuts.

Nowhere, nohow, no way!”

Jon-Tom switched to rubbing his bitten finger.

“Ever hear of Quasequa, Mudge?”

The otter frowned down at him. “Qua wot?”

“Quasequa. It lies far to the south of the Bellwoods.

Exquisite country, a beautiful tropical city built out

on a vast lake. The kind of place an otter, it seems to

me, would find downright paradisaical.”

“Charming, friendly inhabitants;’ Clothahump added

without glancing up from his meal, “who know how

to make a stranger feel at home. Especially, I am

told, the ladies.”



Mudge seemed to waver, but only for an instant-

Then his determination returned.

“Oh, no, you ain’t goin’ to smooth-talk me into it

again. Not this time. I know ‘ow you two operate, I

does.” He nodded again toward Jon-Tom. “This one’s

*alf solicitor and ‘alf devil. Between the two of you,

you could sell ice to polar bears- No, I’ll ‘ave none of

it this time. Do what you want to me.”

Jon-Tom approached the cage, his best profes-

sional smile fairly lighting up the dim kitchen. He

was careful, however, not to get within biting dis-

tance of his best friend.

“Aw, c’mon, Mudge. One more time. For old times*

sake. Be a friend.” The otter didn’t reply, stared

stolidly at the far wall.

“I know you’re upset right now, and I can under-

stand why. I sympathize, really. I meant it when I

said I had nothing to do with bringing you here like

this. I was going to come out and meet you, but

Clothahump decided that it was important to try and

save time, I guess, so he brought you here this way

without telling me of his plans.”

*Time. Let me tell you somethin’ about time, mate.

Do you ‘ave any idea where I was when ‘is sorcerership

there yanked me out of reality and into nothingness?

Do you ‘ave any idea what five minutes in Chaos is


“There are somewhat smoother methods of generat-

ing the transition,” Clothahump murmured, “but

they take too much time.”

“Do they now? Time, wot? I’ll tell you about time.”

A wistful expression came over his face. “There I

was, sittin* in Shorvan’s Gambling Palace in down-

town Toothrust… which is a good place for a gam-

bling chap like meself to be… ‘oldin* twelve of a

kind. Twelve of a kind!” He almost broke out sobbing,

but managed to restrain himself.

Alan Dean Foster


“And the pot… there was enough gold in that pot,

me friends, to set me up for three, four years o*

comfort. So I’m gettin’ ready to make me play, see,

because I know wot the score is and that the one

chap with a chance to stop me ‘as to be bluffin’

because ‘e ain’t ‘oldin’ diddly-squat in ‘is paws. This

bum’s a foxie with no moxie, see? I can read ‘is

bloomin’ whiskers, and I know I’ve got ‘im beat, I

know I dol So I push in all me chips, a great

galumphin’ pile won at great labor and pain, and

wot do you think ‘appens to me and me twelve of a

kind, eh? Wot?” Jon-Tom said nothing.

“I’m jerked bodily into Unfamiliar Chaos, which

ain’t no garden spot, I can tell you, and then finds

meself bound up like a B&D ‘oliday gift in this

bloody cage so’s that tuft o’ blotchy, moth-eaten

feathers over there can tell me that I’ve been sum-

moned hence because you, mate, needs me ‘elp on

one of your forthcomin’ suicidal excursions.”

Jon-Tom glared at Ctothahump, who appeared

not in the least distressed. “You did say, my boy, that

you wanted his company on this journey. If anything,

I expressed a dissenting opinion.”

“I said that I wanted his help, his willing help.”

“Best not to waste time,” the turtle harrumphed,

“debating semantics.”

“If you don’t want to waste time,” Jon-Tom said,

**why not send us to Quasequa tlie same way you

brought him here?”

“It’s not quite that simple, my boy. Bringing and

sending are quite different things. The spells are

more complex than you can imagine. Bringing takes

enough out of you, and 1 am not at all adept, I

confess, at sending. If I were better at either, I’d

bring this Markus person here. That would simplify

everything, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, 1 cannot do



that. I was only able to manage this recall because of

your strong association with this creature and—”

“Who’re you callin’ a ‘creature,’ you fat-brained…”

Mudge hesitated, latched onto a new thought. “Wait

a minim. Who’s this ‘Markus’ you’re talkin’ about?”

“Someone I have to talk to,” Jon-Tom explained.

“In beautiful Quasequa.”

“Ain’t nowheres as beautiful as a gamin’ room with

a big pot o* gold lyin’ in it waitin’ for the takin’.

Twelve of a kind. The draw o’ me life.” He looked

back to Clothahump again. “The least you could’ve

done, your sorcerership, was to ‘ave brung me ‘ere

first-class instead of economy.”

“I am not one to indulge in frivolous, unnecessary


“Right, guv, and I’m sure you travels steerage

every time you transpose, too. At least let me out o’

these blasted ropes!”

“Yes, I believe 1 can do that, now that you have

calmed down somewhat and decided to act halfway

civilized. All that screaming and cursing, tch.” He

mumbled something under his breath.

Nothing happened. “Well,” Mudge asked, “is that


“Not quite. You have to sneeze.”

“Oi, I do, do I? Just like that? You think sneezin*

on cue’s as simple as talkin’? As simple as drawin* to

twelve of a kind? Right then!” He inhaled sharply,

tickled his nose with a whisker, and blew messily in

Jon-Tom’s direction. No question but that his aim

was deliberate.

The ropes turned to dust at his feet. He stood and

rubbed his arms to restore the circulation.

Same old Mudge, Jon-Tom mused, cleaning him-

self up as he inspected his old friend. The otter

boasted a new vest of gray shot through with silver

thread together with matching silver-and-black shorts.

Alan Dean Foster


His new boots were bright metallic blue. The famil-

iar longbow and quiver of arrows were slung across

his back. On his head rode the same battered green

felt cap. New feather, though.

“That’s an improvement, guv’nor. Now ‘ow about

this bloomin’ cage?”

“What cage?” asked Clothahump with a half smile.

“There is nothing barring your path save a few

flimsy threads.”

“Few they may be but flimsy they ain’t. Don’t think

I ‘aven’t tried.” He pushed out with a hand, casually,

and several of the threads snapped. He had to rush

to jump clear as the wooden roof started to collapse

on top of him. Then he was standing unrestrained

on the kitchen floor staring at what up until a

moment ago had been an impenetrable prison but

was now nothing more than a couple of blocks of

wood lightly linked together by a few cloth threads.

“The only thing worse than a bloody wizard,” he

mumbled, “is a bloody wizard who likes to play


“I do not play jokes,” declaimed Clothahump with

dignity. “Such mundane exercises in plebeian amuse-

ment are beneath my stature.” He coughed lighdy. “I

do admit to some slight subtle sense of humor,

however. At my age you pass up no opportunity for

some mild amusement.

“As for your late lamented twelve of a kind, for

that 1 am sorry. I have reason to believe that the

wizard Opiode the Sly, whom you travel to visit, will

be willing to reimburse you fully.”

“Yeah, that’s wot you always say, guv.”

“In any case, you will surely have the run of lovely,

exotic Quasequa, whose climate and virtues the poets

extol beyond—”

“Oh, come off it, guv’nor, I’ve ‘eard all this before.”

He sniffled once. “Twelve of a kind.” A glance up at



jon-Tbm. “You know ‘ow long a player waits for a

‘and like that, mate?”

“No, I don’t. I thought the most you could get in a

game was four of a kind.”

Mudge mulled this over. “I can see we’re talkin’

different games ‘ere, mate. You wouldn’t understand,

then.” He turned to face Clothahump. “Right then;

this brotherly dabbler in the back o’ beyond may or

may not pay me for me time and trouble, but wot

about me own ‘ard-earned money I put on the table?

Wot about the loss o’ me gamblin’ stake? Or don’t

you think you’re responsible for me losin* that?”

“I am not responsible for your gambling debts,”

said the turtle slowly, “but I agree it would be wrong

were you to suffer the loss of your own money on my


“Well now, that’s more like it.” Mudge looked sur-

prised and somewhat mollified. “You know, guv, if

you wouldn’t treat me like an old ‘ammer and saw all

the time, I might be a mite more inclined to partici-

pate willingly in these charmin’ little diversions you

and the ‘airless one ‘ere come up with. Quasequa,

wot? Never been there, ’tis true. Wot is it we’re

supposed to do there?”

“Check out a new chief advisor to the local rulers,

a newly arrived wizard who calls himself Markus the

Ineluctable,” Jen-Torn told him.

“Sounds straightforward enough to me.” His gaze

narrowed and darted back and forth between Jon-

Tom and Clothahump. “You’re sure that’s all, now?

You two wouldn’t be concealin* somethin’ from old

-Mudge, now would you?”

“Certainly not,” said Clothahump, obviously insulted.

“Would I do something like that, Mudge?”

“I don’t like it. You two are too chummy. I feel

safer when you’re arguin’.” He focused on the turtle.

Alan Dean Foster


“Wot’s the land like between ‘ere and this -Quasequa


“Tropical, friendly, largely uninhabited and un-

spoiled. I would be coming along myself if my arthri-

tis were not acting up. That, and the fact that this is

really a minor business, precludes my accompanying


“There’s something else.” Jon-Tom put a comradely

hand on Mudge’s shoulder. The otter moved out

from under it, but at least he didn’t try to bite. “This

Markus the Ineluctable claims to have come from

another world. If he comes from my world and the

two of us strike up a friendship, it’s a chance for me

to get home. Maybe for both of us to get home.”

“Well now, that would be worth the journey, to see

the last of you, mate, though I don’t know as ‘ow I

could stand more than one of you otherworldly twits

in the same place at the same time. Nothin’ personal,

but if you get back to your ‘ome, maybe I can get

back to ‘aving a normal life o’ me own.”

“A normal life,” said Clothahump dryly, “rich with

thieving, fighting, wenching, and being in a condi-

tion verging on permanent inebriation all the time.”

“Yes, that’s wot I said,” agreed the otter blithely,

missing the wizard’s sarcasm entirely.

Clothahump eyed him sadly. “I fear there is no

hope for you, water rat.” He looked suddenly

thoughtful. “I was led to believe that the most you

could hold in a game of artimum was eleven of a


“I thought artimum was a spice,” said Jon-Tom.

“A spicy game of chance, my boy. Spices are in-

volved as well as dice and cards.” He gave the otter a

shrewd look. “You didn’t, by any chance, cardamom

your hand?”

“Oh, wonderful!” Mudge threw up his hands and

beseeched the heavens for understanding. “I’m snatched



r T

; ?

away from the biggest winnings of me ^hort life so’s I

can be accused o’ cheatin’ by someone who wasn’t

even there.”

“Did you cardamom your cards?” Clothahump


Shaking his head, Mudge turned to Jon-Tom, put

a hand around his waist. “Right then, mate. Long as

our course ‘as been determined, we might as well be

on our way. Sooner we gets there the sooner we can

start *ome, right?”

“Might as well wait another day, since I’ve saved so

much time what with Clothahump bringing you

straight here. We can leave tomorrow morning.” He

was taken aback by the otter’s sudden enthusiasm.

“Let’s ‘ave a chat then, must be a lot you ‘ave to tell

me, and I’ve plenty to tell you.” He eased Jon-Tom

toward the doorway.

“Twelve of a kind.” Clothahump was rubbing his

lower jaw and gazing speculatively after the hurried-

ly departing otter.

Mudge made sure to close the door behind him.


It was raining when they departed the following

morning. Mudge appeared to have undergone a

complete change of heart and was all but pushing

Jon-lbm out the door.

“No reason to wake ‘is nibs,” the otter told him,

smiling reassuringly. “Let the poor bugger ‘ave ‘is


“Tell me about this game called artimum. I’ve

heard of it before but I don’t really know how—”

“Now don’t you start, mate. Tell you about it when

we’re well on our way. Wouldn’t want anyone else to

get the wrong idea about old Mudge, would you?

Besides, there’s more interestin’ tales I’ve yet to tell

you. Did I mention yesterday about the vixen in

Tenwattle who… ?”

The rain slid offJon-Tom’s waterproof iridescent

lizard-skin cape, which he kept well over his head,

while Mudge merely placed his felt cap in his pack to

protect it. Other than that he ignored the rain, for

otters are as comfortable soaking wet as they are

bone dry.

Heavier drops rang some of the bell leaves which

gave this country its name, but for the most pan the

trees were quiet. A tendaria rested on a nearby



branch. The blue-and-puce flying amphibian sat with

its mouth agape and head back as it collected rainwa-

ter in the flexible sac attached to its lower jaw. It

would carry the fresh water back to the clay-sealed

nest it had made in the trunk of some hollow tree

and add it to the growing basin therein. In time the

female of the species would lay her eggs in the nest.

The young flying amphibians would eventually hatch

and mature in the protected pool, remaining there

until they were old enough to fly and breathe air.

“Really, Mudge, don’t you think it’s about time you

gave some thought to altering your life-style?”

“And wot’s wrong with me life-style?”

“For one thing, you couldn’t exactly call it productive.

You’re a sharp guy, Mudge. Yet you choose to spend

your life as a wastrel.”

“I calls it freedom, mate. And it’s a challenge

walkin’ the fine line between the legal and the

debatable, leavin’ it to everyone else to guess which

side o’ the line you’re on, on any particular day.” He

winked broadly. “Of course, the trick o’ such livin* is

to ‘ave one foot on each side o’ the line at all limes,

and to be able to dance back and forth without

gettin’ caught on the one side or the other. Never a

dull moment.”

“I know it’s an exciting way to live, but it doesn’t

seem to have much of a future to it. I’ll bet you don’t

even have enough put aside to pay for a decent


“Funeral? Hell, mate, I know them that spends

their ‘ole lives worryin’ about ‘ow they’re goin’ to be

buried. The goal o’ their life is death. ‘Ardly seems

worth livin’ at all. Might as well slit your throat and

miss out on all the worryin’.”

“Go ahead and make light of it, but there’ll be no

one to cry at your funeral. No pallbearers, no

Alan Dean Foster


mourners. Or do you think your thieving acquain-

tances will take the trouble to show up?”

Mudge shrugged. “I don’t worry about it none,

but 1 do know there’ll be at least one there to weep

for me passin’.”

“Yeah, who?”

“Why, you, mate,” and the otter grinned up at him

so infectiously that jon-Tom had to turn away lest

Mudge see his own smile-

“Maybe, just maybe, but I still think you could do

more with your life.”

“Plannin’ takes all the surprise out o’ life, mate.

Me, I’d rather take it as it ‘its me, even if it some-

times *its kind o’ ‘ard.”

They marched on, arguing about life and mean-

ings and directions. Mudge cited chapter and verse

from personal experience—always frenetic, often foul,

but never dull. jon-Tom countered with quotes from

everyone from B. F. Skinner to Woody Alien. None of

his arguments had the slightest impact on the free-

living otter.

They passed the glade where the footprints of

M’nemaxa still showed as deep depressions in solid

granite; passed through dense, familiar woods; and

finally emerged on the banks of the river Tailaroam.

Westward the great river tumbled and churned on

its way toward the distant Glittergeist Sea, while far

off to the east lay the impressive range of mountains

known as Zaryt’s Teeth, which gave birth to the

Tailaroam’s tributaries.

Their immediate concern was the broad section of

fast-running river directly in front of them. It flowed

from east to west, and their course led due south.

“How do we get across?”

“As for me, mate,” Mudge told him, “I’d as soon

swim it in a couple of minutes- I’d enjoy it more than

these past days’ trek.” He glanced around, searching



the shoreline. “If we can find a nice dry log, I’ll give

you a push across. Wouldn’t want ‘is nosyness to

think I weren’t takin’ good care o* you.”

They hunted for and found a suitable log. Jon-

Tom sat astride the fallen tree with his long legs

stretched out in front of him, clinging to the otter’s

clothing and his own belongings while struggling to

balance himself as Mudge pushed out into the river.

Fortunately, the otter’s sense of equilibrium was bet-

ter developed than his own. Every time it looked like

he was about to tip over, Mudge adjusted from

behind. They arrived on the opposite shore of the

Tailaroam without Jon-Tom’s getting his toes wet.

Mudge climbed onto the sandy bank, shook him-

self off, and then lay down in the sun until his slick

fur was completely dry. As soon as he’d dressed, they

started south along a well-trod and easy-to-follow


Soon they found themselves in the Lower Dugga-

kurra Hills, a landscape of rounded boulders worn

smooth by the action of wind and rain. Thick brush

thrived in pockets of dark soil between the rocks.

Already they were starting to leave behind the larger

conifers that dominated the expanse of forest called

the Bellwoods, and the tall tropical hardwoods of the

lake region would not put in an appearance for some

time yet.

Jon-Tom took his time breaking camp the follow-

ing morning, quenching the embers of their camp-

fire and scattering the ashes. Time was important,

but he didn’t want to arrive in Quasequa too exhausted

to think.

The trail had grown more and more obscure the

deeper they’d penetrated into the rocky terrain, so

he wasn’t surprised to see the confused expression

on the otter’s face when Mudge returned from scout-

ing the path ahead.

Alan Dean Foster


Or was there more there this morning than just

confusion? He rose,-kicked the last splinters of smok-

ing wood apart, and brushed dust from his hands.

“Something wrong? If it’s the trail -..”

” Tisn’t that, guv. It’s… well, you’d better come

and ‘ave a looksee for yourself.”

“A looksee at what?”

Mudge said evenly, “I think the ground ahead’s on


Jon-Tom swallowed his ready retort as he saw that

the otter was in dead earnest. Hurriedly he slipped

into his backpack and followed his companion

southward. Mudge underscored the seriousness of

his claim by not talking as they marched.

Sure enough, as they topped a small pass between

the boulders, Jon-Tom could see vapor rising off to

the left. It was only after they’d hiked another mile

that he could be certain it wasn’t smoke-

Mudge could see the difference, too. “Sorry, mate-

1 turned back to camp before comin’ this far. That

ain’t smoke from no fire. ‘Tis steam.”

“That it is/’Jon-Tbm agreed, “but what’s the source?”

They found out when they crested the next rise.

Stretched out before them was a most wonderful

panorama. Hot pools of varying depth and hue

bubbled and growled in the cool of morning. Steplike

terraces of calcium carbonate climbed the rocks,

each one like the entrance to a sultan’s palace. Steaming

water cascaded down them from hot springs above,

constantly adding to and altering an already spectac-

ular sight. Brown-and-yeUow bands of travertine en-

closed emerald-green basins. Everywhere could be

seen the blue, green, and yellow of heat-loving algae.

“Just like Yellowstone,” Jon-Tom murmured. “1

feel privileged to see this.”

“And I feel like a moron,” muttered Mudge. ** ‘Earth

on fire’ indeed!”



“Don’t feel bad. It could look that way from a

distance.” Jon-Tom removed his backpack, then his

shirt, and started on his belt,

Mudge eyed him curiously. “Now wot are you up


“I haven’t had a hot bath since we left Clothahump’s


“A hot bath. Now there’s a novel idea.”

“Find yourself a cool pool tf you want to join me,*’

Jon-Tom told him, slipping his pants down his legs.

“I enjoy hot water, Mudge. Keep in mind that I

haven’t got your insulating layers of fur and fat.”

“Wot fat?” snapped the indignant otter. “I ain’t


“It’s a subcutaneous layer and it’s there to keep

you warm when you’re under water.”

“Sounds bloody disgustin*.” Mudge lifted a flap of

skin from his left arm, eyed it as though seeing it for

the first time. But he was damned if he was going to

sit and watch while Jen-Torn enjoyed himself. The

water in the pool the human had chosen was much

too warm for his taste, but another nearby was

pleasant enough. Stripping quickly, he dove into the

natural basin, found he had to float. The sand at the

bottom was too hot to touch.

“A hot bath. You ‘umans are burstin* with weird


Jen-Torn didn’t reply. He was too comfortable,

drifting on his back in the warm water, listening to it

bubble and tumble down the hillsides surrounding

them. There were no geysers in evidence, suggesting

that this was a relatively calm thermal area-

“Back where I come from,” he told Mudge lazily,

“there’s a tribe of humans called the Maori who live

in a place just like this. It’s called Rotorua and it

steams all year round.”

Mudge sniffed, paddling across the surface of his

Alan Dean Foster


own pool. “It ain’t for me, mate. Give me a nice

ice-cold mountain stream to go swimmin’ in any day.

Though this stuff does,” he admitted, “clear out your

sinuses.” He dove in a single flowing motion, a grace-

ful curve that belied the presence of a stiff backbone.

As he did, something struck the water just behind


Jon-Tom stood, the heat of the bottom sand tick-

ting his feet, and tried to see what had entered the

water aft of the otter’s submerging backside. As he

stared, something went spang against the boulder

behind him and flew to pieces. Some of the pieces

floated. He picked them up and identified them


When Mudge broke the surface again, it was to see

his companion huddled in a narrow cove formed by

overhanging rocks. He paddled toward the adjoining

pool. “Wot*s up, mate?”

“Didn’t you see?”

“See wot?” Mudge frowned, pivoted in the luke-

warm water.

“It went right over when you dove.”

“Wot went right over me when 1 dove?” Something

whizzed past his right ear and he jerked around

sharply in the water, his eyes wide. “Cor, somebody’s

shootin’ at us!” He ducked just in time, and a second

arrow struck the water directly behind him.

He emerged as if shot from some subterranean

gun, leaping completely over the stone barrier sepa-

rating the two pools, and swam over to huddle next

to Jon-Tom. Their weapons and clothes lay on a nice,

dry slope on the opposite side of the water, in a

sunny spot completely devoid of cover.

“We’ll ‘ave to make a run for it, mate.” Mudge spat

out warm water. “We can’t just squat ‘ere and let ’em

pick us off.” He took a deep breath and started to





i >.

Jon-Tom grabbed him by the fur on top of his

head and pulled him up again. “Hold on a minute.”

A half dozen arrows whizzed past, far overhead.


High-pitched squeaks sounded from the far ridge.

More arrows went past. None landed near the ner-

vous bathers.

“Maybe they’re not shooting at us.” He paddled

out just far enough to see around the rocks beneath

which they were hiding, trying to follow the flight of

the arrows.

Sure enough, moments later other cries and shouts

came from that direction, and several small spears

arced past overhead, retracing the path of the mis-

siles which had initially panicked the two travelers.

The shouts and screams grew steadily louder, and

soon both groups of combatants revealed themselves.

The opposing war parties clashed in the middle of a

single natural causeway which wound its way across

the hot springs. Spears, stones, and arrows filled the

air, flying through the steam- Mudge and Jon-Tom

strove to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.

There were a few gophers and moles among the

fighters, but the large majority on both sides were

prairie dogs ranging between four and five feet in

height. They slashed and stabbed with quick, short

movements, their high-pitched battle squeaks rising

above the hiss and rumble of the springs. They

fought with a determination and ruthlessness that

Jon-Tom found appalling in such, well, cute creatures.

There was nothing comical about the carnage they

wreaked on one another, though. Body after body

tumbled into the steaming water, limbs flew through

the air as swords made contact, and the perfect

clarity of the springs was soon stained dark by the

blood of the fallen.

This went on for the better part of an hour before

Alan Dean Foster


the war party on the left began to retreat. Their

opponents redoubled their efforts and in minutes

had gained complete control of the causeway. They

fanned out over the opposite hillside, dispatching

those of the opposition too weak or badly wounded

to join their comrades in flight. They did so with a

matter-of-fact bloodthirstiness that chilled Jon-Tom

despite the surrounding hot water.

Something pricked his shoulder and a voice sounded

from behind them.

“You two there. Out of the water!”

Jon-Tom turned. Four of the victors stood looking

down at them. The one holding the spear on him

wore a helmet fashioned from the skull of an

opponent. It was bright with beads of many colors,

trade trinkets, and dangling feathers. An elegant

barbarism, Jon-Tom mused. It was a perfect frame

for the expression beneath it.

“Hiya, guv’nor,” said Mudge cheerfully. He spread

his paws in a gesture of innocence. “See, we didn’t

know there was goin’ to be a punch-up ‘ere, we

didn’t. We were just ‘aving a spot o’ bath, and we—”

The one with the skull headdress shifted the point

of his spear so that the tip hung in the air an inch

from Mudge’s nose.

“Right you are, mate! We’re comin’, we’re comin’.”

He climbed out and Jon-Tom followed him.

Their captors backed off a bit, intimidated by

Jon-Tbm’s unexpected size, and allowed them to

march over the causeway to retrieve their clothes-

Eyes turned among the rest of the victors as the

peculiar pair passed among them. High-pitched que-

ries followed their progress.

“Where’d you find these?”

“Down in one of the pools.”

“What were they doing there, you suppose?”

“Spying, I wager.”



“A good place to spy from, if that was their


“Mighty big human, isn’t it?”

“Doesn’t look so tough to me.”

This steady exchange between the four captors

and their colleagues continued until a cluster of

older prairie dogs clad in real armor approached.

The newcomers were led by one white-furred old-

ster who was taller than Mudge, His helmet was of

brass, with holes cut on top for ears and curved slats

to protect the bulging cheeks.

“I’m General Pocknet,” he said in a curious but

no-nonsense tone. “You two don’t belong hereabouts.”

Jon-Tom wasn’t about to argue with him. “We’re

travelers, just passing through on our way south.”

“South?” The general frowned. “There’s nothing

to the south of the hills.”

“The city-state of Quasequa,” Jon-Tom told him


“Never heard of the place,” replied Pocknet, shak-

ing his head. His jowls and whiskers quivered.

“Still, that’s where we’re headed.” He nodded to-

ward the bloodstained causeway. “Looks like your

troops won.”

“We won this day, yes.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Don’t try and ingratiate yourself with me, man.

We have settled our differences with the Wittens for

another month. Then we must Fight again to see

who retains possession of the springs.”

Mudge was frowning as he tried to understand.

“Let me get this straight now, guv. You lot ‘ave this

same little argument regular-like every month?”

“Naturally,” said the officer behind Pocknet.

“You two honestly don’t know what is happening

here, do you?” said Pocknet. Man and otter shook

Alan Dean Foster


their heads in unison. Pocknet gestured across the


“Over there is my home, the land of Fault.” He

turned and pointed up the hill pimpled with the

bodies of the Wittens. “Beyond this rise lies the

territory of Witten, our hereditary enemy. We fight

the good fight on the first day of every month.”.

“For fun?” asked Jon-Tom hesitandy.

“A typically human conceit. Of course not for fun.

We fight for control of this.” He indicated the valley

of hot springs with a sweep of one hand.

“Wot do you want with a bunch o’ boilin’ water?”

Mudge wondered.

The general eyed him distastefully. “Civilized folk

know what to do with heat- It cooks our food, cleans

our clothing, pleases us in many ways. Whoever

controls the bridge controls the Mulmun, and who-

ever controls the Mulmun controls the springs.”

“Uh, pardon our ignorance,” said jon-Tom, “but

what’s the Mulmun?”

The general was shaking his head. “It’s true; you

two are ignorant, unsophisticated travelers, aren’t


“That’s us, your generalship.” agreed Mudge readily.

“Just a couple of innocent dolts bumbling our way


“That remains to be determined. You’ve said where

you are going. Where do you come from?”

“From the north, from across the Tailaroam. The

forest known as the Bellwoods,” Jon-Tom told him.

“That would explain your evident ignorance of

civilized matters,” the general agreed. “But I suspect

this pretense of innocence is nothing more than a

clever ruse. Obviously you were spying for the Wittens.”

A circle of spears closed in tight around Jon-Tom

and Mudge.

“Hey, let’s ‘old on a minim ‘ere, guv’nor! We were



just ‘aving ourselves a spot o’ bath is all, wot? Didn’t

know shit about this Wittens-mittens-Smault business,

we didn’t!” One of the encircling soldiers touched

him with a spear, and Mudge turned to glare angrily

at him. “Poke me with that again, short whiskers,

and I’ll put it where the sun don’t shine.”

A senior officer leaned forward to whisper in the

general’s ear. “Your pardon, sir, but their stupidity

appears genuine to me. I honesdy believe they have

no idea what the Mulmun is.”

“Hmmph. Well…” General Pocknet nibbled one

curling whisker and squinted at the two strangers.

“You are an odd pair, no denying it. Too odd even

for the Wittens to employ, perhaps.”

“Oddest pair you ever set your bloomin* eyes on,

guv,” Mudge assured him readily.

“I may have erred in calling you spies. Yes, you

happened to be bathing in the springs, purely out of

ignorance of reality, only to find yourselves caught in

the middle of a battle.”

Jon-Tom let out a sigh of relief as the spears

withdrew slightly. “That, sir, is just about the size of


The general waved the spears aside completely.

“Let them have their weapons.” He moved to stand

close to Jon-Tom, staring up at the much taller

human. “Since you are not our enemies, I guess you

have to be our guests.”

“General, sir, if it’s all the same to you, we’d just as

soon… umph!” He grabbed himself and looked an-

grily at Mudge, who’d quickly elbowed him in the

ribs. Mudge beckoned him close, and Jon-Tom

restrained himself long enough to hear the otter out.

“Listen to me close, mate. I know these tunnel-

dwellers, I do. They can be real touchy about ‘avin’

their ‘ospitality turned down.”

Alan Dean Foster


“Oh. all right.” He stood, still rubbing his side. “So

we’re your guests. What does that entail?”

“A good meal and friendly chatter,” the general

told him. “You can tell us of where you’re from and

where you’re going.” He turned and barked orders,

His troops began to regroup and to fall back across

the causeway. The general and his senior staff flanked

the visitors, Pocknet striding along briskly with both

paws clasped behind his back. An armor-bearer walked

behind him, carrying the general’s helmet and sword.

“Tell me now, how comes an otter and a man to be

traveling together in our country?”

“Let’s save that for dessert,” Jon-Tom told him. “If

you don’t mind, I have a couple of questions of my

own.” Mudge was making shushing sounds in his

direction. Jon-Tom ignored him.

“Can’t you share the hot springs with the Wittens?”

The general smiled up at him. “You are a dumb

stranger, so I will excuse the affront. You see,” he

said, as if explaining to a child, “there is but the one

Mulmun, the symbol of the springs. That is what we

fight for control of. Whoever possesses the Mulmun

has the right to control the springs.”

“But isn’t there enough here for both communities?

Can’t you share?”

“Why share,” replied the general, favoring him

with an odd look, “when one can have it all?”

“Because it makes more sense than slaughtering

your neighbors.”

“But we like slaughtering our neighbors, and our

neighbors feel exactly the same way about us,” said

the general easily.

“How do you know sharing wouldn’t be better?

Have you ever tried sharing?”

“Absurd notion. We could never trust the Wittens.

Wouldn’t dare to try. The minute our backs were

turned, they’d cut our throats and take control of



the springs forever. If any of us survived, we’d never

see the Mulmun again. At least, not for another


“You only fight on the first of the month? Nobody

ever tries a sneak attack on the other side in the

middle of an off week?”

The general looked indignant. “Certainly not! What

do you think we are, uncivilized barbarians? What an

outrageous notion. Ah, we’re home.”

Ahead lay a hole in the side of a hill. The large,

ornately carved wooden gate had been flung wide to

reveal the well-lit tunnel beyond. A line of sentries

stood drawn up in review on either side of the

pathway. Other, much less spectacularly decorated

entrances were visible off to the left.

The general led Mudge and Jon-Tom inside. As

usual, Jon-Tom was forced’to bend in order to clear

a local ceiling. Once out of the sun, the gophers and

moles in the group were able to remove their protec-

tive sunshades.

Before long they began to encounter noncombatants,

citizens engaged in daily chores. Greetings were ex-

changed between civilians and soldiers. Cubs tagged

alongside, jabbering at one another and occasionally

pausing to engage in mock battles. Tunnels appeared

that branched off in all directions.

Eventually they turned right and entered a room

with a ceiling high enough to permit Jon-Tom to

straighten. He pressed a hand gratefully against his

complaining lower back. There were half a dozen

long tables in the room, each decorated with neat,

miniature place settings. Pennants Tiung from the

rock overhead, while spears and more exotic weap-

ons were attached to the walls. Fires burned in

several fireplaces whose chimneys had to reach all

the way to the surface above. Kettles and pots simmered

over the flames.

Aim Dean Foster


“Officers’ mess,” General Pocknet informed them.

He directed them to the head table. Jon-Tom found

a cushion and tried to balance on it. The low table

made the thought of trying a chair out of the question.

Females brought out hors d’oeuvres, platters heaped

high with fruit and nuts. The general cracked one

between his front teeth, tossed the shell into a com-

munal basket in the center of the long table, and

gnawed on the nutmeat Soon the room was filled

with sharp cracking noises and Hying shells. Jon-

Tom felt like a kernel in a popcorn popper.

Mudge was trying to make conversation with one

of the waitresses, so it was left to Jon-Tom to engage

the general.

“This war of yours, it’s been going on like this,

month after month, for a long time?”

“As far as history tells,” Pocknet assured him.

“We’re quite comfortable with the arrangement, and

so are the Wittens. Gives our lives continuity. All

disputes between us are settled by control of the


“Exactly what is this ‘Mulmung’?”

” ‘Mulmun,'” the general corrected him smoothly.

He pointed toward one of the fireplaces as he cracked

another nut.

Resting on the mantel was a garishly colored,

three-foot-high blob of regurgitated ceramics, mostly

maroon, pink, purple and glazed with pearlescent

white. It was possibly the ugliest piece of sculpture, if

it could be dignified by such a description, that

Jon-Tom had ever seen.

“That,” said the general proudly, “is the Mulmun.

Whoever wins the battle on the first of each month

retains it. It is the symbol of the springs. While we

hold it, the Wittens may not come near or make use

of the warm waters. We’ve held it for six months

now, at great expense, but it’s been worth it.”



Jon-Tom considered as he chewed on the contents

of a long, thin nut. The meat was delightfully sweet,

which was good, because it had taken him at least

four minutes to break the tough shell.

“I think I understand. If you didn’t possess the

Mulmun, then you’d have to relinquish your absolute

control of the hot springs.”

The general nodded. “We carry it with us into

battle each month. Should the Wittens win, they

would take it back to Witten with them and dominate

the springs for a month.” He chuckled, obviously

relishing his opponents’ discomforts. “They must be

very filthy by now.”

“I didn’t see it during the fight.”

“Do you think we’d risk putting it in danger?” the

general asked him, aghast. “The possessors display it

in its special container, well out of the way of the

combatants’ arms but up where all can see it for

inspiration. It is quite irreplaceable, quite.”

“Ghastly piece o’ puke, ain’t it?” Mudge whispered

to his friend. The otter had found something alcohol-

ic to imbibe and was draining his mug as fast as the

dainty prairie lass nearby could refill it for him.

“Christ, watch your mouth!” Jon-Tom warned him

anxiously. He smiled at the general. “Being a strang-

er here, it’s not for me to criticize your customs.”

“Then don’t,” Pocknet advised him blandly. “Enjoy

your meal and be on your way- Now, tell me about

your plans.” He looked eagerly at his tall guest.

Jon-Tom regaled their hosts with tales of his many

adventures, and the underground citizens listened

politely, for all that they thought he was the biggest

Bar to come among them in many a moon. None,

however, denied the amusement value ofJon-Tom’s

rambling prevarications, and they applauded politely

at the conclusion of each anecdote.

The dinner also featured some live entertainment.

Alan Dean Foster


Several captive Wittens were dumped in the center

of the room, hauled erect, and tied to stakes so that

the ladies, when not serving the tables, could pull the

unfortunate prisoners to pieces. Jon-Tom found that

this diminished his appetite considerably. His hosts

seemed to find it uproariously amusing.

Several times Mudge had to lean over and warn

his friend to keep his opinions to himself. You don’t

insult true believers in the middle of their own

church. Besides, hadn’t they seen worse outrages in ^

their travels? Tomorrow they could leave, none the ^

worse for the experience. ^

So Jon-Tom smiled thinly and made a show of ^’

enjoying himself. There wasn’t a damn thing he ^

could do about it anyway. The “entertainment” over. ^

everyone repaired to their respective bedchambers. ^

Their hosts even managed to rig a bed of sufficient

length for Jon-Tom to stretch out upon.

Comfortable though it was, it didn’t lull him to

sleep. Instead, he lay wide-awake, thinking hard

about all he’d seen and heard during the day.

The situation existing between Witten and Fault,

two communities of similar size and population, was | \,

intolerable to a civilized human being. It was worse

than intolerable: it was sickening, disgusting, a sin

against common sense! It ought not to exist. It must

not be allowed to continue.

Since no one else seemed to give a damn, Jon-Tom

resolved quietly to do something about it himself.


It was pitch-black inside the burrow when he de-

cided it was safe to move. A good five hours had

passed since they’d retired, and, Jon-Tom reasoned,

most of the underground community should be rest-

ing soundly.

He fumbled along the wall until he encountered

one of the ubiquitous oil-soaked torches each hall

and room was equipped with, struggled with his flint

until it sprang to life.

“Mudge.” He moved quietly toward the otter’s bed.

“Let’s go, move it. We’re getting out of here. We’re

going to help these people whether they like it or

not. Mudge?”

He put out a hand, feeling for the otter’s shoulder

in the dim light provided by the torch. It went all the

way down to the mattress. The covers came away

with a yank.

“Well, shit,” he muttered, swinging the torch to

inspect the rest of the room. No sign of the otter

sprawled unconscious on the floor. Nor was he asleep

in the bathroom, or in the hall corridor outside.

No one bothered him as he stood thinking furiously

in the passageway. Could the reluctant water rat have

run out on him this early in their journey? Knowing


Alan Dean Foster


Mudge, that kind of desertion couldn’t be ruled out.

Or was he off somewhere within the subterranean

town, carousing with newfound buddies or gambling

his shorts away?

Tough. He should’ve stayed with his companion.

Anyway, the otter was a superb tracker. Jon-Tpm was

willing to bet he could find a vanished friend with

ease. Let him stay behind if he wanted to and do his

own explaining. What Jon-Tom had in mind was

bigger than either of them, something that should

have been done in this part of the world a long time

ago. Fortunate chance had given him the opportuni-

ty to correct a monstrously maintained wrong.

In the darkness he struggled to retrace his steps.

Down a hall, and sure enough, there off to the left

was the dimly lit and now-deserted officers’ mess.

The dishes had been cleared from the long tables.

Lingering embers still glowed and popped in the

three fireplaces, sending smoke up to the surface

world above. Not a soul in sight.

He tiptoed across the floor between two of the

tables until he stood before the central fireplace.

None of the locals could reach the mantel, but it was

an easy stretch for him. The Mulmun was heavier

than it looked.

Back quickly out to the hall, and then he was

running at a steady pace up an ever-ascending slope,

the Mulmun tied to his belt and concealed by his

flapping green cape.

There were sentries on night duty, a pair of wide-

eyed and fully awake gophers. They recognized the


“Evemn’, sor,” said one courteously. “You’re bein’

up kind o’ late for a day-dweller.”

Jon-Tom tried to bend to his right to hide the

bulge at his waist. “Can’t sleep.”



**A sensible attitude,” commented the other guard


“Thought I’d go for a walk.” How convenient, he

thought, that the voluminous cape also hid his

backpack. Its presence wouldn’t square with a brief

evening stroll.

The guards weren’t in the least suspicious, however.

Jen-Tom backed around them, smiling brightly. “Just

a quick little look around. Got to be back early to

wake my friend.”

The sentries exchanged a glance. “That’s funny,

sor. Your companion went off toward the springs

“bout an hour or so ago.”

“What? My friend? Are you sure?”

“No otters livin’ in Faulty” said the first sentry.

“Had to have been him, right?”

**I guess so. Yes, it must’ve been him. That’s certain-

ly interesting. The sly little cuss neglected to mention

it to me. I will have to remonstrate with him, yes

indeedy. 1 know. I’ll bet he went for a moonlit swim.

Sure, that’s it.”

“He didn’t say anything to you?” Suddenly the

second sentry seemed more than casually curious.

“That is odd.”

“Oh, no, no, not really,” Jon-Tom assured him as

he continued backing toward the exit, now tantalizingly

near. “He does things like this all the time.”

“Funny time o’ night for a day-dweller to be takin*

a bath,” the guard went on.

*’You know these water rats.” Jon-Tom’s smile was

frozen in place- “So damned unpredictable.” He turned

2nd Jogged out onto the surface, leaving the puzzled

Sentries conversing noisily behind him-

Once out of sight he increased his pace to a run.

Puzzled guards could be dangerous guards, especial-

ly if their curiosity matched their confusion.

More important, what the hell was the otter doing

Alan Dean Foster


at the springs in the middle of the night, and why

didn’t he see fit to tell his traveling companion about

his plans for a nocturnal excursion? It didn’t make

any sense, which meant it was perfectly in character

for Mudge. He paused only briefly to catch his

breath and rede the awkward burden of the Mulmun.

It was certainly a lovely night for a swim. The

moon was high, and pale silver light bathed the

boulders and rising mist. Of the otter there was no

sign, and the only sounds came from the bubbling,

hissing springs.

Or was there something else? It rose and fell, but

it didn’t sound like water bubbling or steam venting.

It issued from behind a cluster of granite spires.

Jon-Tom approached them cautiously- The sounds

were familiar and yet alien. Invading Wittens, perhaps,

scouting out the terrain in preparation for next

month’s carnage.

He peered over the top of the rocks. It was Mudge,

all right. Only, he wasn’t alone. Jon-Tom thought he

recognized the prairie dog lady who’d been serving

them during the ceremonial meal. Coquettish little

sprite. She was being anything but coquettish at the

moment, however. Mudge was moaning softly and

she was emitting a rapid sequence of high-pitched

squeaks and bleats. Some were undoubtedly too high-

pitched for Jon-Tom’s human hearing, but he got

the idea fast enough. They weren’t talking about the

weather. Matter of fact, they weren’t talking at all.

“Mudge!” he whispered.

“Wot the bloody ‘ell is that?” The otter withdrew,

only to lose his footing on the round scones and

stumble head over heels. His paramour scrambled in

the direction of her clothing.

The otter’s sharp eyes quickly found Jon-Tom

staring down at him from atop the ring of boulders.

He let out a tremulous sigh.



“Bless me bottom, mate, ’tis only you. Wot are you

tryin’ to do. give me ‘eart failure?”

“No” Jon-Tom wondered why he was still whispering.

The little lady cowered off in a corner. “Get dressed.

We’re getting out of here.”

Mudge shifted rapidly from relieved to startled.

**Wot, now?” He began gathering up his clothes and

weapons. “Ain’t you got no sensitivity at all, mate?”

“I’m sorry, 1 didn’t know. If you’d bothered to tell

me your plans for the evening…”

‘.,/ **… You’d’ve tried to talk me out of ‘cm, guv’nor. I

know you. Wot’s the bleedin’ ‘urry, is wot I wants to


: “Mudge, I saw these people fight today, brother

against brother, more or less. I listened to their talk

Cgnd learned their sordid local history. What we’ve

^fyot here are a bunch of people so immersed in an

.ingoing bad habit they haven’t the foggiest notion of

:\how to cure themselves of it.”

; “Your pardon, mate,” said the otter as he slipped

,;into his shorts, “but wot we ‘ave ‘ere is a bunch of

^people who are perfectly ‘appy with their lives just as

they are.”

“That’s because they can’t break out of this cycle

they’ve slipped into. Mudge, there’s plenty of hot

water in these springs, more than enough to supply

all the needs of both towns. It’s not like they’re

Fighting over a limited resource.”

“Jon-lbm, I’m beginning to think that your brains

are a limited resource, wot? If they ‘aven’t been able

to make a peace stick between them for ‘undreds of

years now, wot makes you think you can suddenly up

and create one?”

Jon-lbm grinned at him, fumbled beneath his

cape. “Because as a third party, there was nothing to

stop me from taking this.”

98 Alan Dean roater

The lady inhaled sharply at the sight of the re-

vered Mulmun.

“This isn’t a symbol of the springs or of communal

contentment,” Jon-Tbm told him in an angry whisper,

“but of stubbornness and calcification in the body

politic. Now that we’ve taken it, they won’t have a

symbol, a totem, to fight for. They’ll have to make


The otter said nothing for a long time, just stared

at his patently insane companion out of wide,

disbelieving eyes.

“You pinched their Mulmunk, or whatever the ‘ell

they call the bloody monstrosity. You pinched it.”

“Exactly,” Jon-Tom said smugly.

“Oh, mate, ‘ow I do wish you’d talk with poor oF

Mudge before embarkin’ on these pet projects of


“They went this way, sor,” said a not-distant-enough

voice. One of the guards from the entrance to Fault.

The next voice they heard was also familiar. It

belonged to General Pocknet.

And he wasn’t alone.

“Come on!” Jon-Tom turned and raced for the

causeway that crossed the springs.

“Later, luv,” said Mudge hurriedly, bestowing a

brief, parting nose-rub on his betrayed lover. Then

he was flying over the rocks in pursuit of his certifi-

able companion.

Armed prairie dogs, some only half-clad, others

wearing odd bits and pieces of armor, soon appeared

in their wake. They were squeaking bloodcurdling

threats and waving swords and spears over their


“Wait, listen!” Jon-Tom held the Mulmun in both

hands, raised it over his head. “Give me a chance to


“Shut up, mate!” Mudge snapped, trying to in-



crease his short stride and secure his vest simul-

taneously. He prayed he wouldn’t stumble in his

hastily donned boots. “You can’t talk to this lot”

“I have tol I’m sure once they hear what I have to

say, they’ll see that I’m only doing this for their

benefit, so that they and their neighbors can begin to

five together in peace and harmony.”

“Snakeshit! I’m telling you they won’t listen to


“They’ll have to. I’ve got the Mulmun”

“Well, ’tis not just that which I fear disinclines

them to sweet reasonableness, mate.” Mudge looked

Suddenly uncomfortable. “See, that sweet little

powderpuff I was dallyin’ with back there amongst

die mists ‘appens to be the good general’s daughter.”

“Mudge! How could you? After all the hospitality

they showed us, the food and the room and—”

“Don’t get sanctimonious on me, you naked baboon,”

Mudge snapped up at him. “You’re the one who

atole their fuckin’ symbol. If you’d been decent enough

to ‘ave let me in on your private reformation, maybe

we wouldn’t be in this little fix.”

“And if you’d told me about yours…”

“You’d ‘ave wot, mate? ‘Ave concurred in and

blessed the assignation? Not bloody likclyl Corl” He

pointed ahead. “Too late, they’ve gone and cut us

off. We’re finished. That’s about right, it is. Me ardor

gets cooled before me body’s t’ get boiled.”

“Wait, won’t you listen? Listen to me!” Jon-Tom

waved the Mulmun, prompting a roar of outrage

from their pursuers.

, **That*s it, mate,” said Mudge sarcastically, “stir ‘cm

up good. We wouldn’t want to put ’em in a position

to grant us mercy or nothin’ like that.”

“We’re not done for yet. Look!” He nodded ahead.

“Troops from Witten. Their sentries must have heard

the noise and sent for reinforcements ”

Alan Dean Foster


“Snatched from the jaws o* death at the last instant.”

said Mudge, relieved. “You cut it too close for com-

fort sometimes, mate- We ‘ave their bloomin’ symbol.

We’ll be treated like ‘eroes in Witten, we will.

Mate… where are you goin’?”

Jon-Tom had turned right. Instead of running

toward the succor and safety offered by the Witten

soldiery, which quickly forced its way across the

causeway, the spellsinger was racing up a side path

that led to the top of the highest hill in sight. They

climbed as they ran, leaping boiling waterfalls and

mudpots. Wittens and Paultines glared at each other

in the darkness, but they were too busy to fight one

another now. Besides, it wasn’t the first of the month.

“Mate, slow down, wot are you doin’?” Mudge was

trying to comprehend his friend’s seemingly wild,

random flight while keeping an eye on their pursuit.

“We can’t-outrun ’em all. Turn it over to the Wittens

and we’ll be bloomin’ ‘eroes. Or give it back to the

ruddy Paultines, but do something with that ceramic


“I intend to, Mudge,” said Jon-Tom grimly. “That’s

why I stole it. I’m going to use it to show both groups

the error of their ways.”

“We’ll be feelin’ the arrows o’ their ways in a

minute. I don’t know why they ‘aven’t tried to bring

us down already.”

“They’re afraid I’ll drop the Mulmun,” Jon-Tom

told him-

“Right.” Mudge relaxed a little. “I ‘adn’t thought o*

that. That ghastly thing’s our insurance, wot?”

The slope increased just ahead. Water vented from

a cleft in the modest cliff. Jon-Tom started climbing

with Mudge right behind him.

By the time they reached the top the opposing

soldiery had reached the base. Wittens and Paultines

eyed one another by the light of their torches, unde-



cided how to react to this unprecedented situation.

Some wanted to fight, but for what? For the first

time in memory, the all-important Mulmun rested in

the hands of an outsider.

“Now, you listen to me, all of you!” Jon-Tom held

the sculpture over his head. The significance of the

gesture was not lost on his pursuers. In an instant,

he had absolute quiet save for the hiss of water and

the crackle of torches.

“I know what this is and what it stands for. So do

all of you, or rather, you think you do. You believe it

stands for honor and dignity and victory in battle.

You’re wrong. It doesn’t stand for a damn one of

those things. Where I come from we’ve had to deal

with this kind of internecine stupidity a little longer

than you have, and I think we’ve learned a few

things about peace and about the futility of war.”

“Give it back to us!” shouted a voice from the

crowd of Paultines- It was General Pocknet. “Give it

back to us and we’ll let you depart with your genitals,

man! As for that one”—and he gestured toward

Mudge—”him I want!”

The otter made an obscene gesture in the general’s

direction, concealing himself as he did so behind

Jon-Tom’s bulk.

“No, give it over to us!” shouted the leader of the

Wittens. “Give it to us and you can name your

reward, man. You can wipe out the memory of six

months of shame for us.”

“I’ll win the day for no group,” Jon-Tom held the

Mulmun firmly in one hand and used the other to

encompass the valley of the springs in a single sweep-

tog gesture.

there’s enough warmth and water here for all to

enjoy. There’s no need to go through this mad

bloodletdng once a month. At heart I believe all of

you are good, but you’ve been suffering from a

Alan Dean Foster


communal illness for a long time, so long that you’ve

no idea how to treat it. Well, I do, and I’m going to

cure the lot of you right now.”

A collective gasp and not a few screams came from

the mass of fighters gathered at the base of the cliff

as Jon-Tom drew back his right arm and heaved the

Mulmun as far out into the night as he could. One of

the screams came from Mudge.

Every face turned to follow the Mulmun’s descent.

It seemed to fall in slow motion, turning over several

times in the moonlight. It landed on an outjutting

rocky snag in the center of a large hot pool and

shattered noisily. The pieces disappeared instantly

beneath the superheated surface.

“Therel” Jon-Tom put his hands on his hips and

glared down at them. “See how easy that was? Aren’t

you ail ashamed? Now you can shake hands with

your neighbors for the First time in years. Do you

realize what this means? It means that yesterday was

the last day any of you had to die for the use of the

springs. Now you can share in its bounty equally, as

you should have from the beginning.” He smiled

beadfically down at his audience. “Blessed are the


The silence he had requested before his polemic

continued after he’d concluded. Soldiers from Witten

glanced uncertainly at hereditary enemies from Fault.

Conversation between them was hesitant at first,

uneasy, but soon blossomed into earnest discussion.

General Pocknet made his way through the crowd to

greet his opposite number from Witten. They talked

rapidly and with passion before finally snaking hands.

Then Pocknet turned to gaze upward and said

clearly, with the obvious concurrence of the other

commander, “Tear out their eyes!”

The cry was taken up with great enthusiasm by

both groups of soldiers, who began scrambling



detenninedly up the steep but short cliff. Jon-Tom

ducked as arrows flew over his head and spears

began to land uncomfortably close.

Mudge led him down the opposite slope. “But I

don’t understand,” Jon-Tom muttered dazedly as he


“I understand, mate.” Mudge spared a backward

glance. “I understand that we’d better get a decent

*ead start out o’ that steep spot or there won’t be

nothin’ left to worry about understand in’.” The cries

and shouts of their enraged pursuers were loud

behind them.

“Cheer up, guv.” Mudge held onto his hat with one

hand as he ran. “At least you got *em to agree on


“But I still don’t understand,” Jon-Tom murmured,

also checking behind them to make certain the recipi-

ents of his helpfuiness weren’t getting any closer. “I

did what was best for them, for all of them.”

“You did wot you thought were best for them,

‘ mate, and there’s a small but important difference

there. But I ‘ave to ‘and it to you, you did get ’em

workin’ together. Now, shut up and run.”

Utterly downcast and defeated, Jon-Tom allowed

,.his legs to carry him along. – – –

Night and mist helped them to shake the deter-

mined pursuit, though for a while it seemed as

:’though the prairie dogs were going to chase them to

“the ends of the world. In addition, the Duggakurra

Hills had given way to a low-lying marshy region

thick with moss-draped trees and long-petaled flow-

ers that moaned when the slightest breeze disturbed

‘.Aem. Not good country for civilized folk to be

^prowling around in at night, and so the Wittens and

Paultines reluctantly abandoned the chase.

Insects and tiny amphibians filled the air with a

steady humming and buzzing. By the time Mudge

Alan Dean Foster


located a little hillock that was reasonably dry, Jon-

Tom was soaked to the skin from wading through

murky water and clinging muck. He watched as

Mudge started a fire.

“Think we ought to risk that here?” He glanced

nervously into the darkness. He wasn’t fearful of

catching cold. The night was warm and humid. But

the marsh might be alive with disease-carrying insects,

and he conjured up disturbing images of plague-

carrying water bugs and giant leeches-

“We’re safe enough now, mate, I think.” The otter

added a few more twigs to the fire. The green wood

sputtered in protest, burning only reluctandy. Mudge

eyed the surrounding landscape. “One o’ your men-

tor Clothagrump’s balmly tropical paradises, wot?

This country’s bloody sickenin’, it is. Not that I mind

the water, mind. I’m as at ‘ome in it as out, and well

you know it.” He plucked distastefully at his filthy

vest. “But it plays ‘ell with a gentleman’s wardrobe.”

Jen-Tom sat down next to the fire and clasped his

arms around his knees as he stared into the flames.

He was too tired even to eat.

“I just don’t understand what happened. All I

wanted to do was bring them peace and harmony.”

He glared suddenly across the flames. “And all you

wanted was a piece.”

Mudge was chewing reflectively on a strip of fish

jerky. “Somethin’ you need to learn bad, guv, is to

stop messin* in other folks’ business. Ain’t nothin’

most folks hate worse than good intentions. Might be

they’ll be better off now for wot you’ve done this

night, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be any ‘appier.

“Seems to me they ‘ad their relationship pretty

well worked out. If you’re goin’ to *ave a war with

your neighbors, you might as well do it on a regular

schedule. Everyone’s prepared and ready and there

ain’t no nasty surprises sneakin’ up on you in the



middle of the night. Me, I wouldn’t care for the lack

o’ spontaneity, but I’ve ‘card tell o’ far less civilized

ways of settlin’ differences between folks.”

“There’s nothing civilized about it,” Jon-Tom

grumbled, “but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

That’s typical of this whole stinking world.”

It was quiet for a long time around the fire.

Mudge Finished his jerky, rummaged through his

pack until he found another. Like any incorrigible

philanderer, he always went to his assignations pre-

pared to travel in a hurry. He waved the piece of

dried fish at his companion as he spoke, using it the

way a schoolmaster might use a ruler.

“Well now, mate, ’tis true 1 can’t comment on that

without ‘avin’ ever ‘ad the dubious privilege of visitin’

your world, but for the sake of argument let’s just

say that you ‘appen to be accurate in your presump-

tions and that this world is stinkin* and uncivilized.

That accepted, it also ‘appens to be me ‘ome. I ‘ave

to live ‘ere, and the sad fact o’ the matter is that you

do too. So maybe you ought to climb down off your

pulpit and quit prejudgin’ folks accordin’ to other-

worldly standards. You might get along a mite better

and you’ll certainly save yourself a lot o’ discomfort.”

“I can’t help it, Mudge,” Jon-Tom replied softly,

staring down at his hands. “It’s my legal training, or

maybe just my natural disposition, but when I en-

counter pain and unhappiness and suffering, I have

to try to do something about it.”

Mudge nodded back in the direction of Witten

and Fault. “There were pain in that relationship,

that’s for sure, but there’s a certain dollop o’ pain in

everyone’s existence. Maybe even in your world. As

for un’appiness, I suspect that those folks were just

as ‘appy and content as could be until you busted in

on *em.”

Alan Dean Foster


Jon-Tom looked up at the otter. “But it was wrong,


“Only by your standards, mate. Mind now, I ain’t

saying yours ain’t better; only that they’re yours and

maybe nobody else’s, and you’d better quit tryin’ to

impose *em on every bunch you feel sorry or compas-

sionate for.”

Jon-Tom sighed, moved the duar onto his knees.

When he flicked the strings, lonely notes drifted out

over the surrounding water.

“Now wot? You goin’ to try and spellsing me over

to your way o’ thinkin’?”

Jon-Tom shook his head. “I don’t feel tike spellsing-

ing now. If you don’t mind, I’m going to indulge in a

little musical sulking.”

He began to play without an eye toward any particu-

lar end, to play just to amuse himself and take his

mind off their present predicament. Where was the

benign tropical land Clothahump had told him about,

the land alive with friendly people and ripe strange

fruits waiting to be plucked from low-hanging branches

and brilliant hothouse flowers? Not within walking

distance, that was for sure. They were going to have

to find a boat.

Unless he could spellsing one up- Sure, why not?

His spirits rose slightly. He’d done it once before.

This time he’d be able to avoid the mistakes which

had plagued them on their previous water journey.

He strained for the right song, a safe and proper

boat song. Mudge had been lying on his back, his

paws behind his head. Now he sat up sharpty, his

nose twitching.

“I thought you weren’t goin1 to try any magic-


“We need a boat. Remember how 1 did it before?”

“Oi, I remember. I remember it made you fallin’

down drunk for nearly a week.”



“It won’t happen again,” Jon-Tom assured him.

“I’ll be more careful this time. I’ve reviewed all the

lyrics in my mind and they’re perfectly innocuous.”

“That’s wot you always say.” He retreated behind a

large tree to watch as Jon-Tom began his song.

His first thought had been of “Amos Moses,” but

there was no boat directly mentioned and the song

possessed disquieting overtones. Another Jerry Reed

ditty served fine, however- He modified the lyrics

slightly, confident he could call up a fully stocked

Everglades-style swamp skimmer to carry them speedily

southward through the marsh to distant Quasequa.

Sparkling, dancing motes appeared in the air around

him. Gneechees, the best indication that his spellsinging

was working. A different light, yellow and brown,

began to form a sheet just above the surface of the


“See, no trouble at all.” He concluded the song

with a Van Halenish flourish not exactly appropriate

to Jerry Reed, and waited while the object solidified

and took form.

It had a flat deck and bottom, just like the swamp

skimmer Jon-Tom had hoped for. But as he peered

into the night he frowned. There was no sign of the

airplane prop that should have been mounted aft.

He shrugged. A small oversight in the magic. Maybe

he’d confused a verse or two. An outboard would

serve adequately.

The craft bumped gently against the shore. Mudge

walked down to pick up the rope attached to the bow


There was no inboard. There was no outboard.

There wasn’t even a rudder. But there was plenty of


The raft was fashioned of split logs. It was eight

feet wide by ten long. Mounted on each side was a

Alan Dean Porter


large, split-bladed oar that could be used to propel it

slowly through the water,

“An elegant example o’ otherworldly technology,”

Mudge observed sarcastically.

“I don’t understand. I tried so hard, I was so

careful.” He strummed the duar. “Maybe if I tried


“No, no, mate!” said Mudge hastily, putting his

paws over bare fingers. “Leave us not push our luck.

So it ain’t elaborate and it ain’t fast and it ain’t

labor-savin’. But it floats, and it beats cuttin’ down

green trees to try and make one ourselves.”

“But I can do better than this, Mudge. I know I


“Best not to get greedy where magic’s involved,

guv. You might make it better, ’tis true. Then again,

you might sink wot we ‘ave, and we’d be back to

walkin’- A bush in the ‘and’s worth two in the bird,

right? No tellin’ wot you might call up a second


As if to emphasize the otter’s concern, the water at

the raft’s stern began to froth and bubble. Mudge

raced up the sand to grab for his bow and arrows

while Jon-Tom backed slowly away from the water’s

edge. Something was materializing at the back of the

boat that had nothing to do with its locomotion or


Eyes- Eyes the size of plates.


They glowed bright yellow against the night, and

each was centered with a tiny, bright black pupil.

Then there were two more emerging from the water

nearby, and another pair, until ten hung staring

down at the little islet.

Trouble was, they all belonged to the same creature.

Nor did they operate always in pairs. Instead they

drifted with a sickening looseness on the ends of

thin, flexible strands that protruded from a smoothly

rounded, glowing skull. Arms and tentacles rose

from around the raft. Two of them seemed to be

holding the bald yellow skull in place, lest it drift off

on its own.

There was a long thin slit of a mouth, dark against

the glowing bulbous head. It was a strip of solidity in

a mass of insubstantial semkransparent yellow lumi-

nosity- You could see swamp water and the raft and

trees right through it.

“Go away!” Jon-Tom stuttered. “I didn’t sing you

upl Mudge, I didn’t sing this up.”

“Right, mate,” said Mudge, his tone indicating

what he thought of his companion’s disclaimer. He

held his bow at the ready, but what was there to


Alan Dean Foster


shoot at? He was confident his shafts would pass

clean through the apparition.

“I know wot it is. mate. ‘Tis a Will-o’-lhe-Wisp, for

certain. I’ve heard tell of them livin’ in swamps and

marshes and such places, if you can call that livin’.”

“There is no such thing as a Will-o’-the-Wisp.”

Jon-Tom held tight to his duar as though its mere

existence might protect them. “They’re not living

things, just floating globes of swamp gas.”

“And what are you?” said the Will-o’-the-Wisp in a

surprisingly resonant tone for such an insubstantial

creature. “An earthbound sack of water with a few

brains floating around inside one end.” It nudged

the raft, which was shoved halfway up onto the tiny

beach. Swamp water sloshed over Jon-Tom’s boots.

“You hit me with this,” the wraith said accusingly.

“Now, why would you go and say a thing like that,

mate?” said .an injured Mudge. “Wot would we be

doin’ with a bunch o’ dead logs like that when we ‘ave

this nice, dry little island to spend our lives on?”

“Don’t lie, Mudge.” The otter threw up his hands

and looked imploringly heavenward.

The Wisp floated out of the water, hovering above

the tallest trees. Glowing eyeballs focused on Jon-

Tom, all ten of them. Then they shifted to stare

down at Mudge.

Mudge smiled ingratiatingly up at the ghostly horror.

“‘E’s not with me, guv’nor. I’m goin’ this way, ‘e’s

goin’ that way- Now if you’ll just excuse me…” The

otter turned to dive into the water.

“I mean you no harm,” the Wisp told them. “I was

only curious because this”—and he nudged the raft

all the way out of the water—”seemed to appear

from Nowhere. Nowhere is a land my kind usually

have to ourselves, except for the occasional tourist.”

“It was an accident,” Jon-Tom explained. “We needed

some transportation, so 1 called this up. I didn’t



know you were anywhere around.” He hesitated,

asked, “Are you sure you aren’t just swamp gas?”

“I should be insulted,” replied the Wisp, “but I am

not, because the fact is that I am largely swamp gas.”

To demonstrate this truism, several tentacles broke

free and drifted off into the distance. They were

rapidly regenerated.

“I just don’t like being called swamp gas, that’s all”

“No harm intended,” said Jon-Tom. “We ail have

pet names that we dislike. For instance, not long ago

someone called me a preppie. Say, maybe you can

help us out. We’re heading south from here for a

place called Quasequa. Anything about the country

between here and there you can tell us about?”

“1 linger longest in Nowhere,” the Wisp informed

him. “Does this Quasequa lie in that region?”

“I hope not,” Jon-Tom confessed.

“Then I do not know of it. But this I do know. If

you go south from here, you have the great Wrounipai

to cross, and that is very near to Nowhere.”

**\bu mean there’s much more o* this filthy disgustin*

‘ell ahead o’ us? I want to be sure,” Mudge added

pleasantly, “before I slit me friend’s throat.”

The water glowed where it foamed around the

Will-o’-the-Wisp’s body.

“A great deal more, travelers. Even I do not know

its full extent.”

“Tropical flowers.” Mudge was staring forlornly at

the dark water. “Compliant lasses waitin’ to greet you

with open arms.” He turned angrily on Jon-Tom.

“You know wot, mate? I always did ‘ave a ‘ankerin’ to

try some turtle soup.”

Jon-Tom smiled up at the Wisp- “We thank you for

that information, even if it’s not quite what we wanted

to hear.”

“We don’t always get to hear what we want to, do

we?** The energetic phosphorescence curled about

ALut Dean Porter


itself. “Now, I”—and the mulli-eyed skull floated

frighteningly near to Jon-Tom—”happen to like music.

I heard yours. Could you sing me a little more?”

“Why, I’d be glad to”

Mudge put his paws over his ears. “Saints preserve

us, not another music lover, and this one ain’t even

got the decency to ‘ave proper ears.”

The unfortunate otter was kept awake all that

night as Jon-Tom sang every old Halloween song he

could remember. The eerie chords drifted out over

the calm swamp water while the WilI-o’-the-Wisp

danced delightedly in the air, tossing off sparks and

glowing splinters of its gaseous self and making lowly

lichens and algae flare with rainbows.

Jon-Tom couldn’t remember the last time he’d had

such an appreciative audience. Sadly, when the Will”

o’-the-Wisp’s interest finally evaporated, it did, too.

The otter’s mood hadn’t improved much by the

time morning dawned. “Wonder if this wondrous

Quasequa even exists,” he grumbled. “Probably some

poor fallin’-down mud-town if it does. Wouldn’t be

the first time ‘is sorcererness ‘as lied to us.”

“He doesn’t lie, Mudge. It’s against the wizard’s

code to lie. He told me so.”

Mudge sighed and looked disgusted. “The com-

panions fate ‘ands you” His voice rose. “Suppose this

bloomin’ paradise do exist? Suppose ’tis everything

your ‘ard-shelled instructor says it is? Wot ‘e neglected

to tell us before we set out on this little stroll is that

there’s a thousand leagues o’ swamp between ‘ere

and there, wot? Wot a load o’ wizardly crap!”

Jon-Tom looked unhappy. “He wasn’t too specific

about the distance to be crossed. I admit I didn’t

press him on the point.”

“I’d like to press ‘im on the point,” Mudge said

grimly, savoring the thought as he fingered his short


sword. “I’d like to press the point right through the

back o’ ‘is deceiving shell and use the ‘ole for a—”

“Careful, Mudge,” Jon-Tom said warningly. “It’s

not healthy to be disrespectful of a sorcerer’s powers

even if he’s a fair distance from you.”

“Frog farts! I tell you, mate, I’m gettin’ fed up with

these bloody surprises o’ yours. For ‘alf a gold piece

I’d leave you now and ‘ead back to the good ol’


“Back through Witten and Fault? By yourself?”

“You broke their bloomin’ totem, not me- Besides,

I’ve got some unfinished business back in Fault I

wouldn’t mind taking care of.”

“If General Pocknet gets his paws on you, he’ll

finish your business.”

Mudge shrugged. “So I’d circle around both towns.

Then ’tis back to the Bellwoods for me, back to

Lynchbany and Timswitty and Dornay and real

civilization. Back to.. -”

Even had Mudge not rambled on, it’s unlikely

either of them would have seen the shadow. The

swamp was a world of shadows, and one more was

easily lost in the shifting, diffused light. The shadow

blended in completely with trees and creepers.

But this shadow was different. It moved indepen-

dently of those which blanketed the island, moved

with purpose and exceptional speed. They didn’t see

it until it was directly over them, and then it was too


Mudge yelled a warning white Jon-Tom dove for

his ramwood staff. The otter reached for his sword:

no time for bow and arrows.

Then it was gone, as quickly as it had appeared-

Mudge lay panting hard on the sand, eyes wide, his

sword held defensively in front of his chest even

though there was nothing left to defend against. The

danger had vanished along with the shadow.

Atan Dean Foster


In its place it left three things: Jon-Tom’s ramwood

staff, his sword, and a single steel-gray feather. The

feather was four inches wide and two feet long- It lay

motionless near the otter, the only hard evidence of

something which had come and gone with blinding


Mudge picked it up, ran it through his paws. The

quill was as thick around as his finger. He straight-

ened his cap, which somehow had stayed on his head

during the seconds-long fight, and gazed eastward.

The shadow had disappeared in that direction, carry-

ing Jon-Tom in a single brace of impossibly big


The otter considered his situation in light of his

recent declarations. The raft was intact, and in addi-

tion to his own weapons and supplies, he also had

the spellsinger’s. He was uninjured.

Well, that was that, then. So much for one brave,

ignorant, meddling, exasperating, immature spellsing-

er. There was no shame now in returning home.

He would even report the debacle to the wizard

Clothahump. Sure, he owed the unfortunate Jon-

Tom that much. At least the youth wouldn’t be

worrying about returning to his own world anymore.

As for the wizard, he would accept his student’s

demise philosophically, and there was no way he

could blame it on the otter. It had happened too


One minute Jen-Tom had been sitting there next

to him, listening politely to his complaints, and the

next he’d been carried off by a dark cloud. Not

Mudge’s fault, no sir. Couldn’t have been prevented-

He loaded the raft and stepped aboard, then pushed

out into the water. At last he could start living his

own life, without fear of being conscripted for some

lethal journey halfway across a hostile world. He

could get back to living like a normal person again,



could sleep soundly once more without listening for

strange sounds in the night.

Certainly there was nothing he could do. There

wasn’t, was there? He pushed angrily against the

shaft of the split-bladed paddle and wondered why

his thoughts were so damn troubled….

Jon-Tom hung in the grasp of the powerful talons

and did not struggle, hoping the enormous eagle

. which had carried him off preferred live food to

dead. Because dead he’d certainly be if the bird let

him fall. The Wrounipai flashed past far below.

He twisted as best he was able in the unyielding

; grip and examined his captor. The eagle had at least

‘ a twenty-foot wingspan. It carried him effortlessly.

Like the much-smaller feathered inhabitants of this

world, it wore a kilt which trailed backward over hips

^ and tail and a vest with a peculiar zigzagging pattern

of black on gray. The pattern was almost familiar to

Jon-Tom, but he didn’t pursue it through his memory.

^ At the moment he was not in a position to spend

tmuch time doing a detailed analysis of another

creature’s clothing.

\ Since the bird showed no sign of stopping, Jon-

^ Tom tried to make a detached survey of the terrain

^ below. It was much as the Will-o’-the-Wisp had

|f described: endless swamp and water stretching off in

^ all directions spotted here and there with tiny islets.

^ A short while later their apparent destination hove

ff into view. Some powerful tectonic disturbance had

{thrust a vast mass of black basalt straight up out of

the earth. It was thickly overgrown with climbing

I. trees and vines as thick as a man’s body.

^ An opening showed in the rock two-thirds of the

^ way up its side. The eagle dove straight for it. For an

^ instant Jon-Tom didn’t think those huge wings would

^’ make it, but the eagle just managed to squeeze

Alan Dean Foster


through the opening without bashing Jon-Tom’s head

or legs against; the rock betow.

The opening was not a cave. It was a tunnel

leading to the interior of the butte. The inside was


The eagle flapped its wings twice before touching

down on one foot. It flicked its prize away, almost


Jon-Tom rolled over several limes, feeling gravel

cut into his face. He suffered the pain and chose

instead to do his best to protect the duar strapped to

his back. When he finally rolled to a stop he was

bruised and scratched, but otherwise in one piece.

Keeping one eye on the eagle, he rose to examine

his surroundings.

The hollow place was not a volcanic throat, but

rather the result of some convulsive fracturing. Six-

sided stone columns rose toward the distant sky.

Jon-Tom had seen them before, in pictures of the

Giant’s Causeway in Scotland and the Devil’s Postpile

in California’s High Sierra.

Where each column had broken, a natural perch

was formed. These were occupied by numerous nests

and homes. The floor of the great open shaft was a

charnel house full of bones picked clean by razor-

sharp beaks.

The occupants of the homes and the owners of the

beaks were normal-sized avians. Not one stood more

than four feet in height. With increasing interest, he

noted kilts belonging to hawks and falcons, ospreys

and fish hawks and vultures- They soared and swam

through the air of the shaft, coming and going

through the opening above and, less often, through

the tunnel that had served as his own entrance. They

all seemed to be talking at once. The multiple screech-

ing was deafening.

Several of them walked or flew by to greet the



giant who had brought him with a spirited, “Hail,

Gyrnaught!” Each raised a right wingdp in salute.

That also struck Jon-Tom as somehow familiar, but

he didn’t pay overmuch attention to it. There were

too many other things to try and absorb simultaneously

and he was too disoriented for deep thought.

For one thing, he was far more concerned about

his immediate fate, since the giant eagle didn’t ap-

pear particularly interested in eating him. Not yet,

anyway. The mountain of bones which covered the

floor of the shaft was anything but reassuring.

The shadow towered over him again. The eagle

was not quite as impressive as it had been with its

wings outspread, but it was just as intimidating.

“Stand up straight!” the eagle commanded him.

Still sore and cramped, Jon-Tom fought to comply

with the request.

“They say, ‘Hail, Gyrnaught.’ You’re Gyrnaught?”

A minuscule nod of head and beak. The eagle was

big enough to bite him in two without straining


“What do you want with me?”

“Not dinner. Flesh is cheap.” He gestured with a

wing. “Welcome to the Raptor’s Lair. You have been

brought here to serve, not to be served. If you prove


“I don’t understand.”

Again the beak dipped, this time to gesture toward

the duar. “An instrument. You are a musician?”

“Uh, yeah.” Somehow Jon-Tom felt this wasn’t the

most opportune time to explain that he was also a

spellsinger. He might want to demonstrate that tal-

ent later. In fact, it was all but a certainty. The

longer he could keep that fact a secret from his

captor, the better Jon-Tom’s chances of catching him


Alan Dean Foster


“I thought as much,” said Gyrnaught. “I have

need of a musician.”

It was in Jon-Tom’s mind to comment that the

eagle didn’t look much like a music lover, but he kept

his thoughts to himself. Trying to still his trembling,

he struggled to put up a bold front. The fact that he

wasn’t on the evening’s menu helped-

“Quite a place you’ve got here.”

“Ah, this is but the beginning.” Gyrnaught was

pleased. Good, Jon-Tom thought, gaining a little

confidence. He can be flattered. To what extent

remained to be seen. “This is only a temporary lair

for my troops and myself. They are but the foam of

a wave which will fly forth to dominate the whole

world. Today this mountain, tomorrow the Wrounipai;

later the world! The nest will reign for a thousand

yearsi” The eagle’s eyes flashed as if focusing on

something .only it could see, and (hat, too, half

reminded Jon-Tom of something.

“I don’t think I recognize the pattern on your kilt

and vest.”

“You could not, for it is not of this world. I

brought it here from another place many years ago.

It has taken me this long to organize just this small

striking force.” He made a disgusted noise. “The

raptors of this world are difficult to convince of the


“Really? Another world? That’s interesting. See,

I’m from another world myself.”

The eagle’s eyes narrowed. “Say you so? What

were you in your world?”

“A student of law and a singer of songs,” he

admitted truthfully.

“I have need of song. As for law, I make my own”

“What were you?” Jen-Torn asked hastily, to change

the subject.

“I?” The eagle gazed down at him proudly. “I was



a symbol. I was everywhere, in thousands of replica-

tions. In stone and steel and brass. In symbols as

small as this”—and he held the two great wingtips

barely an inch apart—”and in granite monoliths big-

ger than you can imagine. I was a symbol every-

where and all people bowed down to me.

“But,” he went on angrily, “they saw me only as a

symbol. They did not stop and pause and consider

when they chose one of their own to be a symbol

over me. From that moment on my powers were lost.

I could not manifest my true self. When their substi-

tute symbol was ground into the dust, only I. of

many thousands of me, escaped destruction. While

in symbols I was destroyed, in this world I found

myself set free. Here I am whole again and can start

the work properly, myself.” He gestured at the rap-

tors swarming through the shaft, the light dancing

on their wings,

“My soldiers will rule above all others. It is des-

tined to be so, destined for the strong to rule over

the weak. We of beak and claw shall dictate to those

who only can walk. It is right- It is destiny.”

It all came together in Jon-Tom’s mind. He’d

studied too much history for it to escape him for


He’d seen Gyrnaught before, in metal and stone

standards. Just as the eagle said. Seen him in pic-

tures rising above obscene parade grounds, atop cold

inhumane structures, a frozen caricature of evil.

“1 know you,” he said. “It was before my time, but

I know what you stand for.”

Gyrnaught looked pleased. “A historian as well as a

musician. You wilt prove even more valuable to the

nest. Tell me, then, do you know the Horst Wessel


“No. Like I said, it was before my time. But I know

the kind of music you want. What I want to know is,

Alan Dean Foster


why should I sing for you? Why should I help you

spread your old evil to this new world when your

infection has already been cleared from mine?”

“Because if you don’t, I will bite off your head and

swallow it like a pumpkin.”

Jon-Tom moved the duar around in front of him.

“Can’t argue with that kind of logic.”

“Ah, you are going to be reasonable, then. That is

good. If you continue to be reasonable, you will

continue to live. Besides, you should be proud that

the nest has need of your services.”

“What is it, exactly, that you want?” Jon-Tom sighed.

Gymaught gestured at his fellow avians. “These

are difficult to inspire. I have not yet been able to

convince all of them that they are destined to rule all

others, that they belong to the master race.”

“Why? Because they have wings and the rest of us


“Naturally. It is only right for the higher to rule

the lower. I will see to it that alt the raptors of this

world flock to my banner.”

“There aren’t enough of you. You’re just a few

species among many.”

Gymaught looked smug. “We will enlist others to

serve under us, and they will do the heavy dying.

They will be proud to when they see what the new

order is to be.”

“You haven’t got a chance, any more than your

human counterpart did.”

“He was a fool, and only a human. I am confident.”

That beak moved dose, but Jon-Tom stood his ground.

There was no place to retreat to anyway. “And now

we shall see if there is truth to your words. Sing, stir

(he hearts of my followers, and you will live long.”

Jon-Tom did so, though it stung badly. He rational-

ized his efforts by assuring himself he was only

stalling for time. Stalling until Mudge arrived to


spirit him out of this place. Then they’d figure out a

means of stopping this disease that had crossed over

from his own world before it could spread.

He sang all the marches he could think of. The

raptors were drawn to the music, dipping low to

listen. There was a screech of approval at the conclu-

sion of each martial melody.

WhenJon-Tom’s lungs Finally gave out, Gymaught

put a friendly wing over him. Jon-Tom felt suddenly


“You did well, musician! Put aside your otherworldly,

primitive moral conceits and join me. I am not

ungrateful to those who pledge their lives to me.”

Jon-Tom wanted to tell the eagle precisely what he

thought of him and his totalitarian philosophy, but

he had sense enough to shrug and say instead,

“Maybe you’ve got something here. Maybe it could

work in this world if not in the one we’ve left


“That’s the spirit.” Gymaught patted him on the

back, nearly knocking Jon-Tom down. “The others

moved too fast and became insane. But 1 am not

insane, and I will not force my wing. Our advance

and conquest will be patient, but inexorable. This

time the cause will not fall.” He looked around.

“Over there is a small cave. A good place for you,

unless you would prefer a higher perch.”

Jon-Tom let his gaze travel up the vertical walls of

the shaft. “I’d never get up or down. I think I’ll stay

close to the ground.”

“A poor, earthbound creature. But you see, with

me, you can fly! In truth, good singer, you will be

able to lord it over your fellows. Think on that.”

Another crushing pat and Gymaught walked off

to talk with his underlings.

Smooth, Jon-Tom thought. He has the charisma

down pat. The odor of the charnel house was power-

Alan Dean Foster


ful in Jon-Tom’s nostrils, an echo of similar, greater

slaughterhouses from his own world’s recent history.

That could not be repeated here, must not be repeated.

But he had to be careful. Gyrnaught was ,no fool.

He would listen carefully to anything Jon-Tom might

sing until he was more confident of his pet human’s

loyalty. So he had to be careful until he could do


He just wasn’t sure what.

One thing struck him forcefully as the days passed

within the shaft: the ease with which Gyrnaught had

taken control of the minds and spirits of this world’s

raptors. They drilled efficiently on the ground and

in the open air overhead, seemingly having readily

abrogated their traditional independence in favor of

Gyrnaught’s rule. It just wasn’t like them, according

to those Jon-Tom had met in his travels.

One day he asked an osprey about it. To his

surprise, the bird informed him that when left to

themselves, the hawks and falcons and other birds of

prey often questioned the wisdom of Gyrnaught’s

philosophy. They weren’t sure they really wanted to

conquer the world- But in his presence they were

helpless. The force of the eagle’s personality and the

strength of his arguments overwhelmed any hesitant

opposition. Furthermore, anyone who questioned it was

never seen again. So there was no organized opposi-

tion to his plans.

The osprey left Jon-Tom much encouraged. May-

be they weren’t confident enough to oppose him, but

at least not all of the raptors had signed over their

souls to Gyrnaught. That uncertainty could be

exploited, but not gradually. Gyrnaught would sure-

ly trace any such dissension to its source, and that

would be the end of Jonathan Thomas Meriweather.

No, it would have to be fast, a sudden collapse of

will if not outright opposition. Trouble was, all the


songs he knew were full of life and delight and fun.

He didn’t know any music darker than the martial

bombast Gyrnaught himself favored. Nor could he

think of anything potentially disruptive which would

work fast enough. And he didn’t think he had much

time. His renditions of old marches were quickly

•bang their edge as his own disenchantment manifested

itself, and Gyrnaught was getting suspicious. One

day soon the eagle might decide to go hunting for a

new musician.

He was sitting in his private alcove on the bed of

straw that had been provided for his comfort, chat-

ting with a small falcon named Hensor.

“Tell me again,” he asked the raptor, “why you all

follow Gyrnaught so blindly and willingly. Because

he’s bigger than the rest of you?”

“Of course not,” said Hensor. “We follow because

he is smarter and knows what’s best for the rest of

us. He knows how to make us act as a single talon

able to strike death into the hearts of any who

oppose us.”

“Yeah, but nobody’s opposing you.”

“All oppose us. All who do not bow down to the

rule of the master race.”

“Well, suppose everyone else did bow down to


*They won’t.” Hensor spoke with confidence. “We’ll

have to knock it into their heads. Gyrnaught says so.”

“I’m sure he’s right, but just suppose, just for a

moment, that everyone did bow down to you. Then


“Then we would rule without bloodshed. Except

for the inferior races, of course, who would have to

be disposed of.”

Jon-Tom felt a chill but continued politely. “Who

would rule?”

Alan Dean Foster


“We would, the raptors would. Under Gyrnaught’s

enlightened leadership, of course.”

“I see.”Jon”Tom shifted on the straw. “Suppose all

this comes to pass, suppose you conquer the whole

world under Gyrnaught’s direction. Then what


“Well…” Hensor hesitated. Evidently Gyrnaught’s

orations hadn’t sought that far into the future. “We

wouldn’t have to work. Others would do our fishing

and hunting and gathering for us.”

“Then what will you do?”

“Why, we will rule, naturally.”

“But you already have everything you require.”

“Then we’ll get more.”

“More what? How much food can you eat? How

much wood do you need for a house or traditional


“I… I don’t know.” The falcon shook his head,

rubbed at his eyes with the flexible tip of one red-

feathered wing. “Your questions hurt my thoughts.”

“I know what you’ll do, and I’ll tell you.”Jon-Tom

peered quickly outside. Gyrnaught wasn’t around.

Probably off drilling troops somewhere. “You’ll get

bored, that’s what you’ll do. You’ll sit around doing

nothing until your feathers fall out and you can’t fly

anymore. You’ll look like a bunch of chickens.”

“Take care,” Hensor warned him. “Some of my

best friends are chickens.”

“Well, you know what I mean. Laziness will result

in flighdessness.”

Hensor’s confidence returned. “No it won’t. Gyr-

naught’s drills will keep us strong.”

“Strong so you can do what? No, once you’ve

conquered everyone else, you’ll get bored and soft

because you won’t have anything else to fight for.

and defeated people will see to all your needs. Rap-


tors are born to hunt. Without any need to do that,

you’ll all get flabby and flightless.”

“You confuse me.”

“Oh, I don’t mean to do that,” Jon-Tom assured

him immediately. “Heavens no. I’m just concerned,

that’s all. You’re all such strong fliers now, I’d hate to

see you waste away.”

“What do you suggest?”

Jon-Tom moved close, spoke in a conspiratorial

whisper. “There’ll be one of you who’ll never get fat

and lazy because he’ll be too busy making sure the

rest of you stay in line. Those that don’t, of course,

are liable to end up on his dinner table.”

Hensor looked shocked. “No, that would never

happen! Gyrnaught would never do that.”

Jon-Tom shrugged. “He’d only be following his

own philosophy. The strong rule, the weak perish.”

He hoped he was having some impact on Hensor

because the convoluted reasoning was beginning to

make him a little dizzy himself. “There is a solution

to the problem, though.”

“What?” asked Hensor eagerly.

“It’s simple. Everyone must be equal. None of the

master race must be any less the master than his

neighbor. That’s only fair, isn’t it? That way every-

one will have to maintain himself in optimum condi-

tion for lighting.”

Hensor’s expression showed that this notion of all

chiefs no Indians was new to him. “Gyrnaught wouldn’t

like it,” he replied slowly.

“Why not? If you’re all members of the master

race, shouldn’t you all have an equal part in ruling

the lesser races? He’d still be the prime leader, but

you’d all be leaders together. Isn’t that how it’s

always been among the raptors?”

“Yes, that’s true,” Hensor agreed excitedly. “We

could all be leaders. We are all leaders.” He turned

Aim Dean Foster


and spread his bright red wings. “I must tell the


Jon-Tom retreated to the depths of his alcove and

went through the motions of rearranging his few

belongings. Before too much time had passed his

attention was drawn outside by a rising din. He

smiled to himself as he turned to peek out of the


Something a mite stronger than an animated dis-

cussion was taking place among the soldiers of the

master race, high up in the air of the central shaft- It

appeared to involve a majority of them, in fact. In

the midst of the discussion was a large gray shape,

dipping and swinging its wingtips in what looked

very much like fury.

Soon it was raining feathers. They were of many

sizes and colors, and Jon-Tom amused himself by

gathering a few and stuffing them into the lining of

his cape. As the screeching and angry squawking

continued, he casually picked up his duar and strolled

toward the path leading to the tunnel. No one paid

him the slightest attention, since everyone was fully

involved in determining who was qualified to be a

leader and who was not.

Apparently Gyrnaught was having some difficulty

sorting out this business of multiple leadership, and

the offer to make him prime leader wasn’t sufficient

to satisfy his ego. There was only one leader here,

one master! His heretofore obedient soldiery was

vigorously disputing this position.

Jon-Tom reached the lip of the tunnel, spared a

last backward glance for the argument which had

freed him, and then hurried into the passageway. He

was almost to the exit when a very large hawk

swooped down from a hidden perch near the ceiling

to challenge him.

Jon-Tom hadn’t expected a guard. This one had



an eight-foot wingspan and gripped a long \w\e

tipped with four sharp points in both flexible wingdps.

Jon-Tom was more fearful of its natural weapons.

Beak and talons could tear him apart.

“Where are you going, musician?”

i “Just getting a little air,” Jon-Tom told the guard,

smiling thinly. He glanced over his shoulder, eyed

the hawk significantly. “Aren’t you going to join the

discussion and put your application in?”

“What discussion?” The hawk’s bright eyes never

left him.

“The one where everybody’s going to determine

who’s a proper member of the master race and who


“I am the sentry,” the hawk told him. “That is

enough for me to be.”

“But everyone else is—” The hawk cut him off by

taking a step forward and jamming the sharp spikes

against Jon-Tom’s belly. Jon-Tom retreated. The hawk

followed, prodding him backward.

“Haven’t you heard about the discussion?” Jon-

Tom asked lamely-

“I’ll find out later.”

“But everyone’s a master now, everyone’s a leader.”

“I’m only a sentry. I think maybe we’d better talk

to Gyrnaught about this. I don’t think you’re allowed

out to ‘get a little air.’ There’s plenty of air in the

lair.” Again the spikes pricked Jon-Tom’s gut, forcing

him back another couple of steps.

He was on the verge of panic. Unarmed, there

wasn’t a chance he could overpower this determined

guard. In a little while Gyrnaught might whip his

fracturing reich back into shape. When he did, Jon-

Tom had a hunch the eagle would do some interrogat-

ing. Then he’d come looking for his pet musician,

whose clever songs wouldn’t save his skin from being

slowly peeled from his clever body.

Atan Dean Foster


“Can’t we talk this over?” he pleaded.

“Nonsense. I can’t discuss things with a member of

an inferior race because it would—” The hawk stopped

in mid-sentence. He pivoted slowly, and as he did so,

Jon-Tom saw something like a quill protruding from

the back of his skull. It wasn’t a quill and it had

feathers of its own. An arrow.

The guard fell on his face, a heap of dead feathers,

“Are you goin’ to stand there gawkin’ all day,”

snapped Mudge as he notched another arrow into

his longbow and tried to see down the tunnel, “or do

you think it’d be too much of me to ask that you

move your bloody aggravatin’ arse?”


t “Mudgel”

^ “Oi, I know me name and you know yours.” The

^Otter was starting to back toward the exit. “Now, if

^your legs are still connected to your feeble brain, I’d

^appreciate it if you’d get the latter t’ movin’ the


^ Mudge led him outside, then down the tree-choked

i^ope to the water’s edge, where their raft was beached.

Jon-Tom had been disappointed when he’d called it

; Up, but now it was as beautiful as a forty-foot motor

| yacht. They pushed off and began rowing furiously

|^fith the paddles.

^ From time to time Jon-Tbm could see several shapes

“rise from the hollow interior of the island only to

dive back inside.

“Beginnin’ to think I’d never run you down, mate,”

‘ Mudge was saying.

“Why’d you bother, after what you were saying the

last time we talked? There were plenty of good

reasons for you to forget about me, and none for

coming after me.”

“Well, let’s call it curiosity and leave it at that,

mate. If I think on it much I’m liable to get sick.

Maybe I was just interested in seein’ if you’d ended


Alan Dean Foster


up as bird food or wotever. Or maybe I’m crazier

than a neon worm.”

“1 don’t care why you did it, I’m just glad that you


Mudge jerked his head in the direction of the

rapidly shrinking island. “Wot ‘appened in there,

anyways? Never ‘eard a screekin’ and yowtin’ like that

in me life. You put a spellsong on ’em?”

“Not exactly. I just sort of convinced them to

engage in a dialogue aimed at preventing the spread

of injustice while maintaining equality among them-


“Cor, no wonder they was ‘avin’ a bloody mess of

it! The poor flap-faces. Think they’ll come after us

after they get things sorted out among themselves?”

“Not right away, if then. If their leader survives

this little debate, he’s going to be too busy trying to

put his organization back together again to worry

about my whereabouts for a while. It probably wouldn’t

be a bad idea to keep a close watch on the sky for a

few days, though”

“I follow you, mate. We won’t be surprised from

above like that again.”

“Damn right we won’t.” He turned thoughtful.

“I’m hoping that Gymaught… that’s the eagle who

snatched me… Finds out what happens to the kind

of system he espouses, finds out that it’s doomed to

self-destruction. I hope he learns that power cor-

rupts absolutely. That greed quickly overtakes loyalty

in the minds of supposedly obedient followers.”

“Why ‘e grab you anyways, mate, if not for


“He needed a musician.”

“Teh. All ‘e ‘ad to do was ask, and I’d *ave told him

as ‘ow *e was wastin’ ‘is time.” He grinned. “Sounds

like a fowl business all the way ’round, mate.”



If he hadn’t just saved his life, Jon-Tom would

have pushed him overboard.

The further south they rowed, the more relaxed

I Jon-Tom became. Clearly Gyrnaught had his wings

t full with his newly enlightened flock, and even if he

» did Find the time to wonder where his musician had

jf gone to, he had no way of knowing which way

xJon-Tom had fled. As days slipped by, he was more

^and more convinced he’d seen the last of the eagle.

| His relief was tempered by their surroundings,

Iwhich grew thicker and more humid than ever.

‘^Clothahump’s “pleasant tropical country” was closing

|in on them with a vengeance. The trees of the

^W^nnipai towered above their frail raft, supported

d|»y labyrinthine root systems which sometimes choked

|E?ff their chosen route, forcing them to detour to east

|or west. Occasionally the roots themselves grew so

||tall it was possible to paddle beneath them. Shelf

fungi and toadstools clung determinedly to the bases

|»f the smaller trees.

? What little dry land they did encounter was so

thickly overgrown with brambles and thorn thickets

Ithat they had to hunt carefully to find campsites for

jtfie night. Mudge insisted they do this because the

jl-egular evening concert of eerie squeals and groans

Hnnade him leery of anchoring out on the water.

^. Man and otter would huddle close together in

front of their small fire for a long while before

drifting off into an uneasy, disturbed sleep. But

while both found the nocturnal noises unnerving,

nothing slouched out of the muck to devour them as

they slept.

Still, the dark, dank gloominess was all-pervading.

Not quite as Clothahump had described it.

Mist clung to them day and night, rising from the

, steaming surface of the water- When it rained, which

| was often, the heat abated somewhat, but it became

Alan Dean Foster


almost impossible to judge direction. This forced

them to seek shelter beneath the towering roots ot

the larger trees. After a couple of weeks, jon-Tom

was certain the morning growth that covered his face

was more mildew than beard.

Everything in the Wrounipai waff slick with moss

or rough with fungi. The intense humidity threat-

ened to rot the clothes otf their backs. .It also seemed

to penetrate to work on their minds, disorienting

them and making identification of the most ordinary

objects difficult.

They had beached the raft on a sand bar beneath

the natural roof formed by several interlocking aii

roots, sharing it with freshwater crustaceans and

other inhabitants of the brackish environment. Their

campfire crackled Fitfully, the flames struggling against

the cloying atmosphere. It was a pitch-black night

Trees blocked out the clouds, and the clouds shuttered

the moon. Their only light came from the fire.

But he could still hear, and something sounded

very peculiar indeed.

Jon-Tom roused himself, his eyes heavy from lack

of sleep. Nearby, Mudge lay rolled up in his thin

blanket, snoring on, oblivious of the strange rushing

noise which had awakened Jon-Tom.

The spellsinger listened for a long time before

donning his cape and walking to the edge of the

water. The sound was an unnatural one, steady and

moist, like a rushing in a vacuum. He put his hand

out into the rain, jerked it back as if he’d been stung,

then slowly extended it a second time. He stared at it

in wonder, shook his head to clear it. The phenome-

non persisted. So he wasn’t crazy.

Water beaded up against his extended hand. It felt

like normal rain. It looked like normal rain. He drew

back his hand again and tasted of it. A pungent, salty

flavor that wasn’t normal. He was relieved for that. It


meant his senses were functioning properly, and he

was relieved that it was the precipitation that was

deranged and not himself.

He watched it until he was completely awake, then

walked back to wake Mudge.

“Huh… wuzzat, wot?” The otter blinked up at

him. Jon-Tom’s face must have presented a less than

pleasing sight, lit only by the feeble glow of their

campfire. “Wot is it, mate? Cor, ’tis black as a

magistrate’s thoughts out.”

“It’s still night. The sun’s not up yet.”

“Then why,” asked a suddenly irritated Mudge,

“did you wake me?”

“It’s raining, Mudge.”

, The otter paused a moment, listening. *T can hear

it. So wot?”

“It’s not raining right.”

“Not right? ‘Ave you gone daft?”

“Mudge, it’s raining up.”

“Gone over the edge,” the otter muttered. “Poor

‘ bugger.” He slipped free of his blanket and staggered

sleepily toward the water’s edge. A paw reached out

.into the rain. Water beaded up against the back of

‘his hand while the palm stayed dry.

^ “I’ll be corn’oled, so it is.”

! Jon-Tom’s hand reached out parallel to the otter’s.

“What does it mean?” It was fascinating to watch the

droplets strike the back of his hand, crawl around

the fingers, and shoot up into the dark sky.

“I guess it means, guv, that ‘is wizardness wasn’t

kiddm’ when he told us this part o’ the world was

tropical. My guess is that the land ‘ereabouts gets so

wet from the ‘umidity that it ‘as to give back some o’

the water to the sky from time to rime. Not such an

improper arrangement, if you thinks about it. Keeps

everythin’ in balance, wot? Up, down, up, down: a

body could get confused.”

Alan Dean Foster


**1 can see what it’s doing, but what does it mean?”

Mudge pulled his paw out of the upside-down

storm and licked the fur on his wrist to dry it as he

strolled back toward his makeshift bed.

**It means that the world’s a wet place, mate.”

Jon-Tom watched the up-pour a while longer be-

fore rejoining his friend. He curled up underneath

his cape but lay wide-awake, staring out into the

storm. The steady rush of sky-bound water was


“Actually, it’s kind of neat. I mean, there’s a won-

derful symmetry to it, a kind of meteorological poetry.”

“Right, mate. Me thought exactly. Now go to sleep.”

Jon-Tom turned to him. The otter’s silhouette was

barely visible against the fading fire. “You live too

fast, Mudge. Sometimes I don’t think you have the

slightest appreciation for any of the world’s natural


“Wot, me?” He blinked sleepily at Jon-Tom. ” ‘Ow

can you say that, mate? Why, this upside-down drizzle,

it revises me ‘ole estimation o’ ‘ow the world’s


“Does it? Then maybe there’s hope for you yet, if

it enables you to appreciate the strangeness and

beauty of nature, the astounding surprises that it has

in store for all of us. There is magnificence in a

slightly altered natural phenomenon like rain.”

“Actually, mate, 1 see it a little differently. See, I

always thought the world was a toilet. ‘Tis nice to

learn that it can function as a bidet also.” Whereup-

on he rolled over once more and went back to sleep.

Jon-Tom resigned himself to the fact that his com-

panion was, aesthetically speaking, a primitive. He

contemplated the upside-down rain thoughtfully. It

was disorienting, but lovely and not at all dangerous.

If naught else it was a welcome change to their

monotonous surroundings.


It continued to pour upward for a good part of

the early morning. Standing on the raft, they remained

clean and dry as they paddled through a sheet of

rising precipitation. The raft was a little cube of

dryness sliding across the plant-choked waters of the


Eventually the humidity fell below a hundred per-

cent and they left the region of constant rain behind.

The water had become a narrow, lazy stream, one of

many cutting through parallel ridges of upthrust

granite and schist. It was an improvement over the

country they had crossed, but not the balmy paradise

Clothahump had described. Dense undergrowth still

crowded for space among the stone and water. They

found themselves paddling down a green tunnel lit

by intermittent sunlight.

On one rocky outcropping Mudge located bushes

which produced delicious green-black berries shaped

like teardrops, and the two travelers spent a whole

afternoon gorging themselves. The stony island provid-

ed a clean, dry resting place as well, and they de-

cided to spend the night.

Jon-Tom awoke the following morning, stretched,

and was awake in an instant. They were surrounded.

Not by Gyrnaught’s minions, nor by the faceless

demons of Markus the Ineluctable.

There were thirty otters staring back at him, and

every one of them looked exactly like Mudge. Jon-

Tom had experienced his share of oddities recently,

but nothing to match this.

“Good morning, Jon-Tom!” the thirty chorused in


He tried to rein in his panicky thoughts. Was he

seeing some kind of multiple mirror image fashioned

by someone well versed in the wizardiy arts? No- If

that were the case, they should all move as well as

talk simultaneously. But some were bending over in

Alan Dean Foster


laughter, others talking to their neighbors, still oth-

ers doffing their hats by way of greeting. Each moved

independently of the other.

There was a simpler explanation, of course. This

world had finally sent him over the edge.

One similarity stood out on careful inspection. It

was enough to convince him he hadn’t tumbled

down some metaphysical rabbit hole. While each

duplicate of the otter moved independently of the

others, displaying different expressions and making

different gestures, every one of them stayed in one

spot. None retreated and none approached.

Until one stumbled into him from behind and

nearly scared him to death. He grabbed this sole

mobile by the shoulders and shook it violently.

“Mudge, is it you?”

The otter’s eyes were glazed. “I ain’t sure no more,

mate. I used to think I were me. Now I ain’t so sure.

I was out gatherin’ breakfast berries when I came

back to see this lot.” He gestured at the circle of

Mudges enclosing their campsite. “Maybe I ain’t me.

Maybe one o’ them is me.”

“We’re all you,” said the otterish chorus, “every

one of us.”

“Yes, but I’m a better you,” insisted a pair of

Mudges off to the right.

“Not a chance,” argued three across the circle.

“We’re the best Mudges, we are.”

“Oi, you couldn’t fool your own real parents,”

declared a quartet of Mudges from the right flank.

“There has to be an explanation for this,” Jon-

Tbm said quietly, “A sensible explanation”

“Sure there is, mate,” said the Mudge standing

next to him. “I’ve been ‘angin’ around you too long,

and now I’m as loony as you are”

“Neither of you is loony,” said *the two Mudges

directly in front of them.


As Jon-Tom blinked, or thought he blinked, the

Mudges disappeared. They were replaced by some-

thing much worse; a pair of six-foot-two-inch-tall,

indigo-and-green-clad Jon-Toms. He stared at the

perfect duplicates of himself.

^”A trick, it’s a trick of some kind. An optical

illusion.” Sure it was, but who was doing it, and why?

They’d heard nothing during the night, and the

sensitive Mudge would surely have been alerted by

the encroachment of so many intruders. He turned

to the otter.

“You haven’t heard anyone on the island besides


“Not a soul,” the otter assured him. “But we sure

‘as ‘ell ‘ave acquired some company.”

“There has to be more than one of them at work

here,” Jon-Tom muttered. “There’s too much hap-

pening simultaneously for a single creature to be


“You’re right there.” He turned on the voice, only

to see three more Jon-Toms chatting amongst them-

selves. One leaned against his ramwood staff, an-

other pointed, while the third studied his hands. But

they stayed rooted in three spots. In fact, it seemed

asif… yes, he was positive. The three new Jon-Toms

occupied the same locations as three now-vanished

Mudges. The otters had turned into Jon-Toms.

“I don’t know who you are or what you are, but if

you’re trying to frighten us, you’ve failed.”

“Speak for yourself, mate,” Mudge mumbled un-

der his breath.

“Frighten you? Why should we want to frighten

you?” inquired a trio of Mudges off to their left.

Once more Jon-Tom’s mind underwent an unsettling

shift in perception. The Mudges vanished, to be

replaced by three trees. Each consisted of a trunk

which topped out in a weaving, flexible point- Flow-

Alan Dean Foster


ers grew from the base of the trunk. In the center of

each was an indistinct, puttylike face. Jon-Tom could

see eyes and mouths but no nose or chin. An ear

protruded from each side, and a single thick, tapering

vine grew from the top of the tree. Or maybe the

trunk became the vine; Jon-Tom couldn’t teil where

one ended and the other began. Maybe there was no

tree: Just the single tall vine.

“We don’t want to frighten you- We’re just practic-

ing our art. It’s rare that we get an audience.”

Jon-Tom turned and looked behind him. Three more

Mudges had disappeared. They had been replaced

by another pair of trees and a single giant butterfly.

It fluttered but didn’t stray from its Fixed position-

“That’s so true,” the butterfly declaimed. “Our

audiences are few and far between.”

“Your art?” Jon-Tom murmured.

“We’re mimics, imitators, mimes,” said one of the

vines. “It started as a defense against the plant-

eaters. Our trees are actually below the surface.” So

these were vines he was looking at, Jon-Tom mused.

“We protect our buried trees by imitating things the

plant-eaters are scared of.”

“It works very well,” said a giant caterpillar. “It’s

hard to try and eat something that looks like you.

Personally, being into photosynthesis, I never could

understand the motile digestion cycle,”

“Anyways,” said a couple of Daliesque nightmares,

“it gets dull just sitting around waiting for something

to try and dig up your tree. So we stay in shape by

practicing different duplications. That gets boring,

too, unless we get a new audience with a fresh

perspective.” The nightmares vanished, were replaced

by twenty pairs of applauding hands.

“Come now,” said something like a small dinosaur,

“what would you like to see us mimic? We’re the best,

on this side”


“Not quite the best,” insisted a quartet of upside-

down birds across from the boaster. “You could

never do this.”

“Fertilizer!” snapped the other vine, immediately

becoming an astonishingly colorful assortment of

dangling avians.

“The feathers don’t run the right way.”

“They do too'” The reversed birds all stared at

Jon-Tom. “Tell us, human, do they look right to


He was slowly repacking his kit. “It’s hard for

me to say. Not really my area of expertise. I guess

they’re okay, for feathers.” He started toward the

beach where they’d left their raft the night before.

Mudge was right behind him.

“Oh, you don’t have to be an expert.” Three vines

interlocked to block their retreat. “All you have to do

is bring a fresh perspective, to be a new audience.

You’re the best we’ve had in a long time. Much too

long. We can’t let you go now. We have so many

imitations stored up. We need someone new to evalu-

ate them for us”

Jon-Tom eyed the intertwined vines and took an-

other cautious step forward. The vines sprouted

clusters of six-inch-long, poisonous thorns.

“What do you think, Mudge?”

“I don’t know, mate. 1 ‘aven’t judged any contests

in a day or so,”

“It won’t take long,” several other vines assured


“Our repertoire isn’t infinite.”

“We should Finish in a couple of years,” said four

giant rats.

The rapid changes were making Jon-Tom slightly

queasy as his brain struggled to keep up with his


“We’d love to watch you perform,” he said slowly,

Alan Dean Foster


“but we have important business of our own to attend

to and I’m afraid we can’t quite spare a couple of


“Oh, come on,” said two versions of himself, using

their ramwood staffs to push him back toward the

center of the circle, “you’ll enjoy it. Be good sports.

We’d go hunting an audience if we could, but we

can’t. We’re stuck to our trees.”

“Yeah, don’t you sympathize with us?” said some-

thing Jon-Tom couldn’t even give a name to.

“Sure I sympathize,” he said quickly. “We just

don’t have the lime to spare, that’s all.” He spoke

politely, white wishing he had a family-sized bottle of

weed killer in his backpack.

“Just sit back and relax,” said five startlingly volup-

tuous naked ladies from off to one side. “You’ll get

used to it after a couple of months and then you’ll be

with us in spirit as well as body.”

“Be with you in spirit?” Mudge squeaked.

“The spirit of the performance.”

“Oh.” He let out a sigh of relief.

“I’ll start, I’ll start'” declaimed one of the women.

It became, quite remarkably, three fish swimming in

empty air- This was only the first of countless

astonishing imitations, as the stage shifted from one

vine or group to another, the duplications traveling

around the circle in dizzying profusion.

If either Jon-Tom or Mudge showed signs of

boredom, they found themselves rudely jostled back

to attention by shouts or smells,

Morning became afternoon and afternoon wore

on into evening. When night crept over the island,

the mimevines turned to mimicking creatures capa-

ble of bioluminescence.

“This is all very entertainin’,” Mudge commented to

his companion, “but I’d rather not make it me career,



“Me neither. There has to be a way out of this.”

*”0w about makin’ a show o’ inspecting one of

their bioomin* imitations close-up-like and then makin*

a break for it between ’em? They’re stuck ‘ere. Once

past *em, we ought to be able to make it easy to the


“I’m not sure what they’d be capable of if agitated,”

Jon-Tom muttered. “Maybe they can imitate things

that throw toxic darts. I don’t want to find out. Not

that it matters. They’re watching us too closely, and I

don’t think we could surprise them as you suggest.

Actually, they’re pretty decent folks, for a bunch of

art-obsessed vegetables, but I think this is what’s

meant by a captive audience.

“They’re going to keep us here. judging their

work, until they’ve run through a couple of years*

worth of imitations.”

“We won’t be much use as judges if they let us


“I don’t think they’ll let that happen. But we’re

stuck here, unless,. -”

“Unless wot?” wondered Mudge, flinching as a

huge luminous crustacean materialized behind him.

“That was a good one, wasn’t it?” asked the eight-

pincered crab-thing. The vines flanking it opted to

become delicate orange anemones.

“Unless I can get them to imitate a certain

something.” He climbed to his feet and found he was

the center of attention. Ghostly glowing things eyed

turn intently.

“Okay, everybody, listen upl” The vines swayed

toward him. They’d been nothing short of polite, in

their childlike fashion, but he didn’t think he’d get a

second chance at this. Better get it right the first


“You claim you can imitate anything?”

“That’s right… that’s right…!” they chorused back

Alan Oean Foster


at: him. “Anything at all. Just name it. Or describe it.”

They rippled and flared in the darkness, displaying

everything from gymnastic feet linked to, long arms

to a talking rainbow.

“Not bad.” Jon-Tom showed them his duar. “But

how are you at reacting to a musical description

instead of a verbal one? How are you at listening and

imitating what you hear?”

“How’s this?” said a giant, fleshy ear.

“That’s not exactly what 1 mean. Can you mimic

only what you hear in the music? Pure music, with-

out descriptive words? Can you imitate feelings, for


“Try us, try us!” urged a chain of worms.

So Jon-Tom sang the song he’d selected, a gentle,

easygoing, relaxing song. He’d sung it once before,

and it had put an entire pirate crew safely into the

arms of Morpheus.

It seemed-to work here, too. The vines slumped,

resembling for the moment nothing more complex

than vines. When the song ended, he shouldered his

backpack and nodded for Mudge to follow.

They were almost to the edge of the clearing when

two vines suddenly rose to interlock in front of him.

They formed a very authentic-looking wall of g^ant

razor blades.

“Nice try,” said a couple of sarcastic Mudges from

nearby. “We thought you might try and trick us. It

won’t work. We’re as alert and aware of what’s goin’

on around us when we’re imitatin’ as we are when

we’re not.”

“So you might as well relax and enjoy the show,”

four Jon-Toms told them. “When you’re hungry

we’ll bring you berries. Real berries, not imitation.”

Jon-Tom and Mudge reluctantly returned to their

seats of honor in the center of the clearing. The

kaleidoscopic procession of imitations resumed.



Mudge leaned over to whisper to his companion.

**I like those berries, mate, but if I ‘ave to eat *em for

the next two years, I’ll turn into a bloomin’ berry

meself. Unless I go bonkers first. You’re goin’ to ‘ave

to try some stronger kind o’ spellsingin’.”

\ “I don’t know,” he murmured. “Next time they

might take my duar away.” He made placating motions,

raised his voice.

“Okay, okay, you’ve convinced me we can’t get

away, just as you’ve convinced me that we’re in the

presence of the all-time masters of mimicry.” Mutters

of appreciation came from around the circle. “But so

far everything I’ve seen you mimic has been alive.

Almost everything, anyway.”

“Live things,” said a three-foot-tall cornflower, “are

much harder to mimic than not-live things. There’s

no challenge in imitating dead things.”

“Then you haven’t been properly challenged. For

example”—he bent to pick up a piece of feldspar—

“can you imitate this? Not just any chunk of rock,

but this specific piece, perfectly?”

“He asks if we can imitate it,” said an irritated

moose. Instantly Jon-Tom and Mudge were sur-

rounded by a wall of feldspar slivers.

“I have to admit, that’s pretty good.” Jon-Tom

rose, tossed the fragment of rock aside. “Though I

do see a little movement here and there. You’re all

supposed to be rock-steady. So you think mimicking

not-live things is easy, do you? Here’s a tough one for

you.” He paused for effect. “Let’s see all of you

mutate water.”

This generated a flurry of uncertainty from the

encircling vines, mixed with excitement at the pros-

peo; of a real challenge. They twisted and jerked,

Struggling with the necessary physical and mental

contortions demanded by the request, until applause

sounded from behind Jon-Tom.

144 ALan Dean Foster

He turned. Several of the vines were applauding

one of their colleagues- This vine had vanished. In

its place was a stable, very narrow waterfall. The

water never touched the earth, but the illusion was

remarkably real.

“Congratulations! That’s more like it.” Mudge gave

him a nudge.

” ‘Ere now, mate, let’s not go gettin’ too interested

in this business, wot?”

Jon-Tom ignored him, spoke to the rest of the

mimics. “Come on, surety that’s not the only one

who can do it!”

The vines continued to struggle. Soon he and

Mudge were surrounded by waterfalls, bits of lake

and pond and swamp.

“I didn’t think you could do it,” he told them. “I’m

impressed, I admit it.”

“Don’t stop now,” said several of the vines, caught

up in the spirit of the moment. “We can go back and

finish our stored illusions anytime. Challenge us


“Yes, something harder this time!” said another.

“I’ll try.” Jon-Tom rubbed his chin and tried to

look intense. He already knew what he was going to

say, but he didn’t want his captors to know he’d

thought it out carefully beforehand. If this was going

to work, it had to appear spontaneous. Even to


“Okay,” he said, as though the idea had just oc-

curred to him. He turned a slow circle, gesturing

eloquently with his hands as he spoke. “You thought

water was hard? Try this. I want you all to imitate…”

and he let it hang tantalizingly for a moment, “emotions.”

That froze the vines. Then they began contorting

and jerking as they launched into vigorous discus-

sion among themselves. Jon-Tom heard whispers of

“Can’t be done… never been tried” interspersed with


more positive assertions such as “Can we mimic

anything or can’t we?… Can’t let the human think

he’s stumped us… Sure it can be done.. -Just takes a

lot of work…”

“And 10 make it worthwhile,” Jon-Tom went on,

“no more of this hanging around waiting for one of

your companions to come up with the solution. You

all take a chance on it simultaneously or it isn’t fair.

Otherwise you’re just imitating the first one of you to

be successful.” He indicated the initial waterfall. “You’ve

•got to try and do it together.”

One of the vines fluttered toward him. “Fair enough,

man. Go ahead and try us!”

“Right- First emotion is… anger.”

A brief hesitation, and then the vines began to

darken. They turned deep, violent shades of crim-

son and yellow and orange. Some sprouted barbs

and thorns that twitched and cut at the air.

“Good. Very good,” Jon-Tom complimented them.

The vines relaxed, congratulating themselves and

conversing as they faded to their normal green hue.

“No time to relax. I’ll go faster now and make it

harder on you. Next emotion is laughter.”

Vines ballooned, drifting in the air tike pennants

despite the fact that there was no breeze. Some

displayed polka dots, others were checkered, some

boasted stripes like barber’s poles, and one enterpris-

ing vine turned plaid.

“Sadness!” Jon-Tom barked.

The laughter vanished as the vines immediately

went limp and stringy, turning deep pea-soup green

or mauve or lavender. They began to drip false

tears, swaying plaintively to an unheard dirge. They

were getting better with practice and Jon-Tom changed

emotions with increasing rapidity. Surprise, fear,

elation, suspense, uncertainty…

“‘Ere now, guv,” said Mudge, “this party’s lots o’

Alan Dean Poster


fun, but don’t you think we ought to—?” Jon-Tom

put a hand on the otter’s shoulder and squeezed

hard, continued to shout suggestions.

Faith, hope, charity, insanity…

He spoke the last in the same tone as all the

others, with the same inflection. The effect on the

primed and responsive mimevines was shocking.

For the first time, there was no rhyme or reason to

their imitations. Colors shifted wildly. Some vines

expanded while others bulged. A couple shrank all

the way back down into their underground, hidden

trees. Two flailed the earth until they came apart,

beating themselves to pieces on the hard ground-

He didn’t have time to observe all the damage his

challenge had caused, however, because he was

running like mad for the beach where their raft lay.

He had to pull Mudge at first, but the otter

caught on quickly enough. This time no imitation

steel materialized to block their retreat. As they

crossed through the circle, Jon-Tom looked back.

Those vines that were still intact were slamming into

each other, beating the air, the ground, whistling

and moaning and shrieking. The noise was worse

than the sight.

“I had to get them going,” Jon-Tom explained as

he ran panting toward the water. “Had to get them

to doing their imitations fast, one after the other,

barn, barn, bami Had to get them working without

thinking, acting reflexively on my challenges, so that

it would become a point of pride for each individual

to keep up with its neighbors.

“I didn’t think my earlier lullaby was going to

work, but it was worth a try. They’d probably been

watching out for just that kind of trick on our pan,

so I figured the worst that could happen was that

they’d get to show us we couldn’t escape. I let them

believe we were resigned to our fate and then tried



to make it look like I was caught up in the spirit of

the contest.”

They were on the raft now, pushing hard on the

paddles, sliding out onto the water of the Wrounipai

and putting some distance between themselves and

the floral asylum they’d left behind.

Mudge glanced back toward the island. “You think

they’ll ever come out of it, mate?” Distant shouts and

moans could still be heard, though they were fainter


“I think so. Gradually one of them will realize that

they’re doing it to themselves and cure itself. Then

the others will imitate its return to sanity. Those who

aren’t too far gone. I could’ve left them with that

thought, but I’d rather they discover it on their own,

after we’re safely on our way.”

“Right. You sure ‘ad me fooled, mate.” He frowned.

Jen-Tom’s expression had turned sorrowful. “Hey,

wot’s wrong now?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He turned back to concentrat-

ing on his paddling. “It’s just that… this is silly, I

know… but while we were trapped back there 1 had

thoughts of… you remember Flor Quintera?”

“The dark-‘aired lady you brought over from your

own world? The one who went off with that smoolh-

talkin’ rabbit?”

“Yeah, that’s her. 1 thought for a minute back

there about asking the mimevines to imitate her.

That would have been an interesting sight, thirty

perfect copies of that perfect body all dancing around


“Blimey,” Mudge whispered, “now, why didn’t I

think o’ that? Not to do up your ideal, o’ course, but

some o’ me own favorite fantasies.”

‘Too late now,” Jon-Tom said with a sigh. “Unless

you’d like to go back. I could wait for you on the

Taft. Maybe the same trick would work again.”

148 Alan Dean Foster

“Not bloody likely. No thanks, mate, but I’ve ‘ad

more than enough o’ vegetables that look like your

Aunt Sulewac one minute and somethin’ out o’ a bad

dream the next. 1 wouldn’t go back there even for

thirty perfect females. Me, I prefer me paramours

with all their imperfections intact.”


After the tidal wave of variety provided by the

mimevines, the monotonous regularity of the Wrou-

nipai was a welcome change. But as they floated

further south, the terrain, if not the climate, began

to change. Tall stone spires cloaked with thick foliage

began to thrust skyward from the water. Instead of

granite, the rock was mostly limestone. Creepers and

bromeliads found footholds in the pitted stone, crack-

ing and eroding the towers.

“A semi-submerged karst landscape,” Jon-Tom

murmured in wonder.

“Just wot I were about to say meself, guv,” said

Mudge doubtfully.

That night they camped on a sandy beach oppo-

site a cliff too steep even for creepers to secure a

hold. While Mudge hunted for dry wood, Jon-Tom

walked over to inspect the rock wall. It was cool and

dry, a comforting feeling in a land brimming with

quicksands and mud.

Mudge returned with an armful of dead limbs and

dropped them into the Firepit he’d dug. As he brushed

dust Syom his paws, he frowned at his friend.

“Find somethin’ unusual?”

“No. It’s just plain old limestone. I was just think-


Alan Dean Foster


ing how nice it was to find some firm ground in the

middle of the rest of this muck.

‘This was once the floor of a shallow sea. Tiny

animals with lots of calcium in their shells and bodies

died here by the trillions, fell to the bottom, and over

the eons turned into this stone- As time passed the

sea bottom was lifted up. Then running water went

to work here, wearing away open places.”

“Do tell,” said Mudge dryly.

Jon-Tbm looked disappointed. “Mudge, your scien-

tific education has been sorely neglected.”

“That’s because I was too busy gettin’ educated

sorely in practical matters, guv.”

“If you’d Just listen to me for five minutes, I could

reveal some of nature’s hidden wonders to you.”

“Maybe after we eat, mate,” said the otter, raising

a quieting paw, “1 want to enjoy me supper, wot?”

Following the conclusion of a sparse but satisfying

meal, Jon-Tom discovered he no longer felt like

lecturing. His mood tended more toward melancholy.

Lifting the duar, he regaled the unfortunate Mudge

with long, sad ballads and bittersweet songs of

unrequited love.

The otter endured this for as long as he could

before rolling up tightly in his blanket. This man-

aged to muffle most of Jon-Tom’s singing.

“Don’t be so damned melodramatic,” the insulted

balladeer said. “After all these months of steady

practice, my singing must have improved somewhat.”

“Your playin’s better than ever, mate,” came a

voice from beneath the blanket, “but as for your

voice, I fear ’tis still a lost cause. You still sound like

you’re singin’ underwater with a mouth full o’ pebbles.

Or would you prefer me to be tactful instead o’


“No, no,” Jon-Tom sighed. “1 thought I’d im-



proved a lot.” He strummed the duar’s dual strings

as he spoke.

Mudge’s head emerged from beneath the covers.

His eyes were half-closed. “Me friend, ’tis late. You

can pow carry a tune o’ sorts, whereas a month ago

your mouth wouldn’t ‘ave known wot to do with it.

That’s an improvement o’ sorts. ‘Tis not willingness

you lack, but a voice. Be satisfied with wot you ‘ave.”

“Sorry,” Jon-Tom replied huffily, “but I need to

practice if I’m going to get any better.”

Mudge made a strangled sound. He couldn’t win.

If he praised the man’s singing, then he sang all the

more enthusiastically, and if he criticized it, then

Jon-Tom needed his “practice.” Life kept dealing

him jokers.

“All right then, mate.” He burrowed back beneath

his blanket. “Try and get ‘er all out o’ your system.

Just don’t wail on till dawn, okay?”

“I won’t be at it too much longer,” Jon-Tom as-

sured him- He sang about days at the beach, and old

mother earth, and friends he had known back in the

real world. Then he put the duar aside and pre-

pared to curl up next to the fire.

Something gave him pause. More than a pause: it

was like an electric shock against his retinas. He sat

up and blinked.

It was still there, and growing stronger. Or was it?

Leaning over, he shook the ball of fur and blanket

next to him.

“Oh crikey, now wot?” The otter stuck his head out

for the third time that night. “Listen, mate, you can

‘ave the bleedin’ fire. Me, I’ll sleep on the raft-

Hey”—he sat up quickly, suddenly very much awake—

“you look like you saw a ghost.”

“Not a ghost,” he mumbled. “I saw… Mudge, I’m

not sure what I saw,”

Alan Dean Foster


The otter studied the darkness. “I don’t see nothin’.

Wot do it look like? Where’d you see h?”

“Over there.” He rose and walked toward the bare

white cliff. Mudge followed, eyeing the night uneasily.

Jen-Torn pointed at the rock. “There. That’s where

I saw it. And there was something else. Just the

slightest quivering under me as I lay down.*A tremor,


“Mate, this ‘ole country’s on shaky ground.”

“No, this is solid rock under this sand, Mudge. It

was an earthquake. I’m sure of that. There’s lots of

earthquakes where I come from, and I know what

one feels like.”

“I didn’t feel anything.”

“You were asleep.”

“Right. So wot were this thing you saw up against

this ‘ere rock?”

“Not up against it, Mudge.” He put his hand on

the limestone and rubbed it. It was coot, solid,

absolutely unyielding. Impenetrable. “It was m the


A dubious Mudge also ran a paw across the solid

stone. He spoke carefully, as if speaking to a cub.

“Couldn’t ‘ave been nothin’ ‘ere, mate. There ain’t a

crack in this cliff.”

“Not in the cliff,” Jen-Tom corrected him firmly.

“In the rock.” He turned abruptly on his heel, returned

to the campsite, and picked up his duar. He started

to repeat the last song he’d sung.

Nothing. Mudge stood near the cliff looking angry,

tired, and frustrated all at the same time.

Then it was back. Just the slightest trembling in

the earth, hardly enough to disturb one’s sleep.

They would have slept right through it ifJon-Tom

hadn’t seen it as well as felt it.

This time Mudge saw it, too. Jon-Tom knew he did

because the otter was backing quickly away from the



cliff. The earth tremor faded and returned, but the

thing in the cliff remained.

“You see it, too, Mudge. You do!”

“Not only do 1 see it, mate,” the otter whispered.

**I see them.”

jon-Tom continued to play. More and more of the

wispy, ghostly creatures materialized. They were not

slipping or crawling over the face of the rock: they

moved easily through the unbroken limestone itself.

Faintly glowing worm-forms about the size and shape

ofJon-Tom’s arm. Oversized, brightly luminous eyes

showed against the front of each specter. Barely

discernible designs flickered to life on glowing sides

and backs, each different from the other, no two


As Jon-Tom and Mudge stared in fascination, they

linked together head to tail, forming a long line that

snaked through the rock. The line gave a twist, and

jEhe earth underfoot trembled again. Then the line

-broke apart and they scattered, a bunch of insubstan-

tial big-eyed flatworms swimming through the stone.

Jon-Tom stopped singing. They began to fade

away, only that wasn’t right. They didn’t fade away:

they dove down into the solid rock. He moved as if

in a trance toward the cliff. There, a minuscule crack

BO wider than a hair, running through the rock and

down into the ground. That was where they’d con-

gregated when they’d formed the link and the last

tremor had struck. They’d lined up along the tiny

stress fracture and twisted, and when they’d twisted,

the ground had convulsed.

“I wonder what they are,” he muttered aloud.

“I don’t know, mate, but they seem to be going on

their way, and I ain’t about to ask ’em to linger.” The

otter was retreating toward his blanket, his gaze

fastened to the rock. “I’ve seen enough of ’em.”

A few still swam across the cliff face. Jon-Tom

Alan Dean Foster


put his Fingers on the duar’s strings. “All right, I

guess we’ve seen enough. I called them up, so I

guess 1 can make the last of them go away.”

“That is what you think,” said one of the worm-

shapes in a breathy, barely audible voice.

Jon-Tom’s Fingers froze halfway to the strings.

“My God, they talk!”

“Of course we talk.” The voice was like a distant

breeze, a faint rustling against his tympanum.

Mudge was too mesmerized to retreat. “How can

they talk,” he asked, “when there ain’t nothin’ to


“There’s something to them, Mudge, Just not very

much. But they’re there, they’re real.”

“Of course we are real. Such conceit.” The faint

words were precise, very proper and clear, though

Jon-Tom saw no movement of lips. indeed, the spec-

tral worm had no mouth. “As a matter of fact, we can

talk quite well, but there is no reason to practice

conversation with those who live on the world’s skin.”

“Then why are you talking to us now?” Jon-Tom


“Your singing fetched us forth from our homes in

the crust. Most extraordinary singing.” The shaped

glow momentarily vanished, only to reappear sec-

onds later at another place in the cliff. It moved

easily, fluidly, as if traveling through water.

“We are sensitive to vibrations. Good vibrations.”

“The last song I sang,” Jon-Tom mused. “I’ll be


“We are also in the business of vibrations,” it told

him. “Normally we ignore those who inhabit the void

above the earth, as we ignore the vibrations they

make. But yours were pleasing and unusual, extreme-

ly much so. We came to feel your vibrations, and to

return the favor to you.”



“Return the fav—”Jon-Tom considered. “You mean

you made the little earthquakes?”

“The vibrations, yes.” The worm-light paused and

linked kself to several of its kind. Once again they

Une<^ up along the hairline crack in the cliff. Once

again they gave a sharp twist. The sand shifted

under Jon-Tom’s feet.

The chain dissolved and many of its component

individuals fled back into the rock.

“But this is impossible. You can’t live in solid rock.”

“Solid? Most of what appears to be solid is empty,”

the creature told him. “Do you not know this to be

^ so?”

^ It was quite right, of course. Matter was composed

^.of protons and neutrons and electrons and far smaller

^fclts of existence like quarks and pi-muons and all

sorts of exotic almost-weres. In between them all was

, nothingness, bridged by forces with even more bi-

1 Zaire names like color and flavor. The planets them-

selves were largely composed of nothingness.

So why not creatures which would find such empti-

ness spacious and comfortable? Of course they would

have to be composed largely of nothingness themselves.

“What do you call yourselves?” In his own world

they would be called ghosts—frightening, rarely

glimpsed creatures of luminous insubstandality. They

didn’t look anything like dead human beings, but

then, manatees didn’t look much like mermaids, either,

and look how many sailors had mistaken them for

wateriogged sirens.

Why shouldn’t these worm-shapes be responsible

for the reports of ghosts in many worlds? Vibrations

could call them forth, psychic in his own world, his

spellsinging here. It made a certain sort of supernat-

ural sense.

“We do not name what is, and we simply are,” said

the glowing nothing.


Alan Dean Foster



“Sing another song.” whispered a voice in Jon-

Tom’s ear. “Sing another song abou^ the earth we

live in.” ‘

He did so, drawing on every tune he could remem-

ber that mentioned the earth, the ground, the rocks.

The cliff came alive with dozens of the warm-glows,

all cavorting to and delighting in his spellsinging and

the vibrations the duar and his voice produced.

From time to time they linked up to produce minute, ,

no longer disquieting earthquakes. ‘7-

“What a pity you cannot follow and sing always ^

among us,” the speaker said. “Such exquisite rip- ‘^

plings in the fabric of reality. But you cannot live in • ^

our world, just as we cannot exist in the void you call ‘ V

yours.” ‘ji

“It’s not a void.” Jon-Tom reached out and touched 1|

the stone. “There’s atmosphere here, and living , •f

creatures.” \ ^

“Nothingness,” said the worm speaker, and before “‘

Jon-Tom knew what was happening it had glided

into his hand. He stared openmouthed at his fingers.

Mudge let out a little moan. “Nothingness, except

for those few solid things that move.”

His hand was on fire, radiating light in all directions.

There was no pain, only the strangest trembling, as

though the bones had fallen asleep. It traveled all

the way up to his elbow, then slid back down to his

fingers. He pressed them to the cliff and the light

went back into the rock.

“That hurt,” said the worm-glow, “and I could not

do it for long. There is practically nothing to you,

near vacuum. The earth is better, more compact, *

room to move about without losing oneself. Now it is

time to go. Proximity to the void you are depresses


Only the speaker remained. The others had all

vanished into the rock.

“Sing for us some other time and we will try to stay


“I will.” Jon-Tom waved. He didn’t know how else

to say farewell to something that barely existed.

The head went first, followed by the rest of the

worm-shape in a continuous, sinuous curve. It melted

into the cliff. Then it was gone. There was a last

feeble earthquake, accompanied by a distant rumble.

Analog to his wave? Perhaps. Then sound and shaking,

too, had ceased.

“Good-bye. They were saying good-bye to us,” he

murmured, enchanted by the memory of their visitors.

“What a world this is.”

Mudge sucked in a deep breath. “I do so wish,

mate, that you’d let me know in advance when you’re

planning on doin* some spellsingin’.”

Jon-Tom turned from the cliff. “Sorry. I didn’t

know I was doing any. I was just singing.”

Mudge sat down and pulled his blanket over his

legs. It was starting to drizzle. “I ain’t sure you can

just ‘sing,’ guv.” Raindrops sizzled into oblivion as

they contacted the fading campfire.

Jon-Tom curled up beneath his cape, careful to

make certain the duar was also out of the rain.

“I mean,” the otter continued, “it seems you can’t

control the magic when you’re tryin’ to spelfsing and

you can’t control it when you’re not, wot?”

“At least I didn’t conjure up anything dangerous

this tame,” Jon-Tom countered.

“Blind luck. They were an interestin’ lot, though.”

“Weren’t they? Kind of pretty too. I wonder how

much of the earth they claim for their home. Maybe

ail the way to the molten inner core.”

“Molten wot? Now that’s a unique conception,


“Nothing unique about it.” Jon-Tom pulled his

Alan Dean Foster


cape over his face to keep ofi the rain. “What do you

think the center of the planet is, if not molten rock?”

“Everybody knows wot it is, mate. Tis a giant pit.

The earth’s nothin’ but a ripening fruit, you know.

Planted in infinity. One o’ these days she’s goin’ to

sprout, and then we’ll all see some changes.”

“Primitive superstitious nonsense. The center of

the planet is composed of metal and rock kept mol-

ten under the influence of tremendous heat and

pressure.” That said, he rolled over and tried to go

to sleep.

The rain trickled down his cape, drumming on its

impenetrable exterior, spattering on the surface of

the Wrounipai. A giant pit. What an absurd notion!

As absurd as the presence of barely substantial crea-

tures living within the rock itself. Wormlike creatures.

Didn’t worms infest rotten fruit?

Nonsense, utter nonsense. He refused to consider

it any further. It was ridiculous, insane, crazy.

Besides, the image it conjured up made him dis-

tinctly uncomfortable.

He tried to concentrate on the memory of their

visitors instead. What could you call them? Earth-

dwellers, rock people, stone citizens? Idly he won-

dered what would happen if thousands, millions of

them joined together along a really big crack in the

earth’s crust. Along the San Andreas Fault back

home, say. What lay beneath that ancient fracture?

Merely different sections of continental plate rub-

bing against each other? Or was it occasionally lined

with millions of the geological folk joined head to

tail, all preparing to produce one sudden, convulsive

twist every hundred years or so?

That thought wasn’t conducive tcr restful sleep

either, here or on any other world. Geologic folk

brought to the surface of the earth by his spellsinging:

how absurd! As were so many things in heaven and



earth that were no less real for their absurdity.

Geological folks. Geo folk. Geolks. Since they had no

name for themselves, he’d call them that. In his

memories, since it was highly unlikely he’d ever

encounter them again. He drifted slowly off to sleep,

wondering if he’d ever be able to go spelunking

again without seeing luminous, insubstantial eyes all

around him.

Jon-Tom had hopes that the karst landscape they

were passing through was an indication of drier

country to come. Several days of steady travel south-

ward quickly dispelled such hopes. The rocky spires

became smaller and smaller and were not replaced

by spacious, dry islands. Once again they found

themselves paddling through scum-encrusted stag-

nant water beneath umbrellalike, drooping trees.

As they progressed he came to at least one decision:

if Clothahump ever asked him again to undertake

another “pleasant little journey,” he was going to insist

first on getting an accurate, non-metaphorical descrip-

tion of the country he was going to have to cross.

But of course, that wouldn’t matter, because he

and this Markus the Ineluctable were going to be-

come fast friends, and Jon-Tom was going to utilize

their joint talents to enable him to return home-

That exhilarating thought helped sustain him as he

and Mudge slogged on through the relentless heat

and humidity.

At midday they usually paused for a rest and a

brief snack, and also to allow the steaming sun an

hour or so to fall from its zenith. The little islet they

chose was not particularly inviting in appearance—

full of odd-shaped, inflexible growths and gnarled

protrusions—but it was the only dry land in the

Unstable bog they were presently traversing.

Return home. Home meant Big Macs and Monday

Night Football, throwing Frisbees at the beach and

Alan Dean Foster


watching Saturday morning cartoons… the good old

stuff, not the sloppy new ‘crap.:. catching up on his

back work and the movies he’d missed. If there was

any back work for him to return to. As far as anyone

at the university was concerned, he’d simply disap-

peared, dropped out. quit. He was going to have a

hell of a time getting his active status restored, much

less changing the incompletes he’d have received in

class- Sure he was.

All he had to do was tell them what he’d been

doing these past months- Sorry, counselor, but you

see, I just happened to find myself yanked through

to this other world, but if my friends Clothahump

and Mudge were here to explain… Clothahump,

see, he’s a wizard. A turtle, sir, abdut four foot high.

Mudge is taller, but that’s because he’s an otter

and… excuse me, counselor, but who are you calling?

No, he’d have to concoct something a bit more

believable than that. Believable and elegant. Maybe

he could tell them that he’d become bored with the

routine of studying and had gone off to South America

to expand his mind. Professors always liked to hear

that you’d been expanding your mind.

A light tremor made the ground shift slightly

beneath them.

“Your ghostly friends again,” Mudge suggested,

his words garbled because his mouth was full of fish


Jon-Tom gazed down at the slick surface they sat

upon. It was bright daylight and hard to tell, but he

didn’t see any sign of the geolks. Besides, he wasn’t

playing anything on his duar. Maybe they were just

lingering in his wake, hoping he’d play again some-

time soon.

He bent over, squinted. Very strange ground. Dead

and dying vegetation, lichens and mosses, algae and

crustaceans. “1 don’t think the geolks are around,



Mudge. Anything could shake this pile of humus

we’re sitting on. Maybe it was a passing wave.”

The otter gestured at the stagnant water surround-

ing them. “Ain’t no waves here, mate, except the ones

ypu and I make with the raft.”

A second tremor rattled their senses, much stronger

than the first. Gingerly, jon-Tom rose to a standing


“Uh, Mudge, I think it might be a good idea if we

got back on the raft. Real quiet- and quick-like.”

The otter was several syllables and three steps

ahead of him. The shaking resumed and now it was

constant as Jon-Tom half ran, half stumbled toward

the raft.

The island was beginning to rise beneath them.


“Damn it, mate, move your arse!” Mudge yelled as

Jon-Tom fell to hands and knees. The otter extend-

ed a paw out to his friend.

Jon-Tom tried to stand, but the surface under his

feet was now .shaking like Jell-0 as it rose from the

water. He gathered himself and leaped, landing hard

on the raft. Mudge shoved frantically at the paddles,

trying to push them back into the water.

Too late. The island had risen on all sides, and

they found themselves ascending into the damp air

along with the beached raft- Water rushed off the

black hillside, turning to foam where rising mass met

the swamp. Mudge lay flat on the deck of the raft,

clinging to the vines that held the logs together,

while Jon-Tom wrapped both arms around one of

the paddle poles. They were surrounded by strange

growths which seemed to be attached to the island’s

bulk even where it had rested beneath the water.

They resembled the skeletons of dead cacti, hollow

and light,

Shellfish, snails, and other inhabitants of shallow-

water environments scrambled for the water as their

homes were lifted into the air. Jon-Tom would have




joined them, but they couldn’t abandon the raft and

all their supplies.

The section of island on which they teetered final-

ly stabilized, but the black land ahead continued

riding- This substantial tower of mud and swamp

ooze didn’t stop growing until it loomed threateningly

over them. Innumerable bottom-dwellers, frantic fish,

and trapped underwater plants dripped from the

tower’s sides.

Then the ooze opened its dozen or so eyes and

stared down at the puny creatures marooned on its


Mudge let go of the vines, put both hands over his

eyes, and moaned, “Oh shit!” while Jon-Tom contin-

ued clinging to the paddle nearby, staring wide-eyed

up at the emergent mountain of swamp muck.

“Ho, ho, ho!” said the apparition, showing a dark,

toothless mouth more than wide enough to swallow

the raft and its occupants whole- “What have we

here? Strangers!”

Jon-Tom tried to smile. “Just passing through.”

“You scratched me.” The voice was heavy, ponderous,

and slow.

“We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I liked it.” It grinned hugely.

Jon-Tom noted that the size of the vast mouth wasn’t

fixed. It expanded and contracted and sometimes

tended to slide toward the side of the head. So did

the eyes, which ballooned from tiny dots to globular

bulbs the size of a car. The vast curving bulk blotted

out trees and sky.

“I am,” Jon-Tom replied carefully, “relieved to

hear it.”

“You’re nice,” said the ooze. “Different. I like

different.” Eyes indicated the surrounding swamp.

“Nothing here is different. Everything’s always the

same. 1 like different.”

Alan Dean Foster


Jon-lbm’s arms were cramping. Slowly, he loosened

his grip on the paddle pole. “You live here in

the swamp?” Now, there, he thought, was a clever


The answer was not as self-evident as he believed.

A slow, rippling laugh emerged from somewhere

down in the depths. It sounded like distant Strums.

“Sort of. I am the swamp, I am the ————” and it

said something incomprehensible.

Jon-Tom frowned. “Sorry. I didn’t get that last.”

The intelligent ichor repeated the rumble, which

sounded more like a volcanic belch than anything


“What do you make of that, Mudge?”

“Indigestion, or else its name is Brulumpus.” The

otter had recovered enough courage to peek out

between his shielding fingers.

“Brulumpus,” Jon-Tom muttered to himself. He

kept his eyes on those of the swamp, which wasn’t

an easy task, considering how they tended to float

in and out of the black goop. They moved about like

marbles in oil. A queasy concept. He tried to think of

something else.

“That is me, the ————” and it made the belching

sound again.

Jon-Tom let go of the pole. Despite its size and

bulk, the mountain of muck did not sound threatening.

If anything, it seemed to be making an effort to be

friendly. Also. Clothahump had once told him never

to let himself be intimidated by mere size. That was

not so easy to do when a potential threat completely

surrounded you.

He tried to phrase his words carefully. The

Brulumpus didn’t seem especially bright. “Very pret-

ty swamp you are. I’m glad we haven’t bothered

you.” He gestured with his left hand. “We’re on a

journey south ”



“That’s nice,” said the mountain.

Not very bright at all, Jon-Tom mused. “Now, in

order for us to be able to continue on our way, we

have to have our raft here back in the water. Could

ypu”—and he described the action with his hands—

“let us down so we can get back in the water to

continue our journey?”

“Continue your journey.” The sides of the Brulum-

pus shimmied and Jon-Tom had to steady himself

with the paddle. “But you are different. You are a

change. I like different. I like changes.”

“Yes, and we like you, too, but we really do have to

be on our way. It’s very important.”

It made no impression on the Bruhimpus. “Change.

A change,” it repeated ponderously. “I want you to

stay and be different for me.”

“We’d love to, but we can’t. We have to be on our


“Stay. I’ll keep you close to me always and take care

of you. You want food, I can give you food.” A

portion of submerged swamp rose. Trapped within

the cuplike shape was a whole school of small, silvery

fish. They fluttered helplessly for a moment until

the swamp sank again-

“Ifyou are wet, I can make you dry.” Jon-Tom and

Mudge winced as a thick shield of solid goo arched

from the water to shield their raft from the clouds

overhead. It hung there for several seconds before


“I will hug you and love you and keep you,”

announced the delighted Brulumpus.

“That’s awfully sweet of you, and we’d love to take

^ou up on it, but we really have to—”

“Hug you and love you and please you and pet you


Jon-Tom was about to reiterate his protest when a

Alan Dean Foster


strong paw on his wrist made him hesitate. Mudge

stood on tiptoe to whisper.

“Stow it, mate- Can’t you see you’re not getdn’

through to it? Garbage you’re tryin’ to be logical

with, and it with brains to match. It ain’t goin’ to let

us leave any more than the mimevines were goin’ to.”

“But it has to let us go.” The duar rested comfort-

ably against his back. “I can always try singing us


“Don’t know as ‘ow that’ll work. this time, guv. 1

don’t know if this pile o’ shit is smart enough to be

spellsung- ‘Tis friendly enough now- We sure as ‘ell

don’t want to do nothin’ to upset the little darlin*. It

doesn’t move real fast and it doesn’t think real fast,

and it just might get irritated-like before your

spellsingin* could ‘ave any effect.”

“Keep you happy and feed you and hug you.” The

Brulumpus kept repeating the paternal dirge over

and over.

“Then what do we do, Mudge?”

“Don’t look at me, mate. I’m just suggestin’ caution,

is all. You’re the would-be wizard around ‘ere. Me, I

just copes with things as they come. Ordinary things,

everyday things. I’ll fight me way through any swamp,

no matter ‘ow filthy and disease-ridden. But I’m

damned if I’m goin’ to sit and argue with it.”

“You’re such a great help to me, Mudge.”

The otter smiled thinly. ” ‘Tis all done out ‘o grati-

tude for the wonderful opportunities you’ve sent me

way, mate.” He put his paws to his ears to try and

shut out the Brulumpus’s unbroken recitation of


“Touch you and hold you and feed you…”

“Wotever you’re goin’ to try, male, try it soon. I

ain’t certain ‘ow much longer 1 can stand listemrf to

that slop,”

“What do you expect from slop except slop-talk?”



Keeping Mudge’s warning in mind, he tried to decide

what to try next while the Brulumpus persisted with its

affectionate litany.

It liked them because they represented a change

in monotonous surroundings, because they were

different. That couldn’t last forever. Eventually it

would grow bored with them- Given its low level of

intelligence, however, that day might be a long time

in coming. How long? No way to tell. The Brulumpus

might continue loving and holding and petting them

for a couple of decades. Or even longer. If the

/ Brulumpus was indeed a part of the Wrounipai it

| might be extremely long-lived. It might not tire of

‘A them until they’d become a couple of desiccated

corpses waiting to be shucked off tike any other kind

of boredom.

– What did it find so different, so intriguing about

them? Not their appearance, surely, for there was

nothing distinctive about either man or otter. Their

intelligence, perhaps? Sure, that had to be it! The

Wrounipai wanted more than companionship and

company- It wanted to listen to some new conversation,

wanted what it couldn’t get from a tree, a rock, a


There had to be a way out, a way that would allow

them to depart without alarming their benign captor.

“Want to hear something interesting?” The moun-

tain of muck leaned forward, drenching one end of

the raft with scum and swamp water. Jon-Tom and

Mudge retreated hastily to the other end. “That’s

dose enough. I’ll speak up if you can’t hear me

clearly.” Proximity to (hat gaping, bottomless maw

was disconcerting despite the Brulumpus’s avowed

good intentions. Maybe one day soon, out of boredom,

instead of hugging and petting and loving them, it

might decide to taste them.

168 Alan Dean Foster

“Go ahead,” it told Jon-Tom, “say something

interesting. Say something different.”

“Actually, we’re not all that interesting.” He tried to

sound bored with himself. “We’re really very ordinary,

even dull.”

“No.” The Brulumpus wasn’t that stupid. “You are

very interesting. Everything you say and do is differ-

ent and interesting. I like different and interesting.”

“Of course you do, but there’s something that’s a

lot more interesting than we are. Something that’s

new and interesting and different all the time.”

The Brulumpus leaned back. Water sloshed against

its flanks as it took a long time to consider this

simple statement. “Something more interesting than

you? Is it more lovable, too?”

Jon-Tom hadn’t considered the last, but he was on

a roll now and could hardly hesitate. “Sure. More

lovable, more interesting, more different. More

everything. It won’t argue with you or confuse you

or even make you think. It’ll just always be there for

you, interesting and lovable and changing-‘*

“Where is it?”

“I’ll bring it here for you to have, but in return,

you have to promise to let us go,”

The Brulumpus mulled the offer over. “Okay, but

if you lie to me,” it said darkly, “if it’s not more

everything than you are, then you’ll stay with me

forever, so I can hug you and pet you and…”

“I know, I know,” said Jon-Tom as he swung the

duar around. He practiced a few chords. These

songs would be a cinch for him to spellsing. Not only

were they as deeply ingrained in his memory as any

lyrics he’d ever heard, they even had a compelling

power in his own world.

“Wot the ‘ell can you conjure up for this mess that

fulfills all those requirements, mate?”

“Don’t bother me, Mudge. I’m working.”



The otter leaned back, glancing up at the thoughtful,

expectant Brulumpus. “All right, guv, but you’d bet-

ter satisfy this smothering pile o’ crud real soon-like,

because I think it’s gettin’ to like us more by the

minute. Though if nothin’ else, your singin’ may

change that”

Jon-Tom ignored the barb as he began to sing.

Despite the threat posed by the Brulumpus, he was

in fine form that day. Even Mudge had to admit that

some of what the man sang actually bore some small

, resemblance to harmony.

The first item that appeared in a ball of soft light

| on the Brulumpus’s back was a toy gyroscope. It held

I; the creature’s attention only for a few minutes. Next

^Jon-Tom produced a grandfather clock. This was

;; more intriguing to their captor, but he noted that

, ton-Tom could produce the same noise as the clock’s

7 chimes.

‘• Jen-Torn tried to interest it in a game of Monopoly,

.but die Brulumpus wasn’t interested in playing at

: real estate, being a considerable bit of real estate

Itself. With Mudge looking on warily, he produced in

wild succession a food processor, a Fugelbell tree,

,:and a performing flea circus. The Brulumpus had

/jw> use whatsoever for any of them. Mudge, however,

made the acquaintance of the flea circus immediately,

and dove into the water, digging and scratching

frantically at himself.

“You’ll drown the act,” Jon-Tom leaned over to tell


“That ain’t all I’m goin’ to drown!” The Brulumpus

boosted him back onto the raft, where he glared at

the singer. “Let’s endeavor to stay clear of performin*

parasites, shall we?”

Jon-Tom sighed. “It didn’t engage his attention

wry long anyway. Don’t worry. I’m just getting warmed


Alan Dean Foster


“Huhl” Mudge sat down and began wringing out

his cap.

The flea circus gave Jon-Tom the idea of trying to

sing up something to infect the Brulumpus, but

everything he could think of was more likely to

afflict himself and Mudge than it was “a mass of

already corrupting ooze.

So he concentrated on continuing the cornucopia

of randomly interesting objects. He produced a model

ship that ran by remote control, a clamer-h lumieres

from an old Scriabin concert, a stack of Playboys, a

coal scoop, a rocking horse. None held the attention

of the Brulumpus for more than a moment or two,

and the space around the raft was beginning to

resemble the back room of a Salvation Army store.

Jon-Tom’s confidence was starting to slip.

“Isn’t there anything I can conjure up that will

interest you more than we do?” he asked plaintively.

“Of course not,” rumbled the Brulumpus. “How

could there be, when I can have everything you can

bring forth and still keep you?”

That sent Jon-Tom staggering. He hadn’t thought

of that. Slow the Brulumpus might be, but it also

had an instinctive grasp of the obvious.

“Oi, we didn’t think o’ that one, did we, spellsinger?”

Mudge taunted him. “We’re so clever, ain’t we,

spellsinger? We ought to ‘ave thought o’ that one

first, oughtn’t we to, spellsinger? Now me, I finds

you duller than a dead rat, but this ‘ere blob o’ barf

ain’t nearly so discriminatin’ in ‘is company. So it

appears as *ow we’re stuck, wot?”

“There’s still the first thing I thought of. Like I

told you, this is all warm-up. Though,” he admitted,

“I never thought of that last argument. Now I’m not

so sure it’ll work. See, this thing I have in mind is

designed to appeal only to a true moron, and now

I’m afraid the Brulumpus may be more than that.


Anything too complex would go by him without

having an effect, but anything too simple won’t inter-

est him as much as we do.”

“Well. you’d better try it, mate, wotever it be.”

“I’m going to,” Jon-Tom assured him. His fingers

touctied on the strings of the duar.

Mudge had listened to some strange lyrics fall

from the lips of his friend the spellsinger, but none

as bizarre as those which now poured forth in a

Steady stream. They made no sense, no sense at all,

And yet he could feel the power attendant on them.

-Strong spellsinging for certain, just as Jon-Tom had

.l«aid. He waited anxiously to see what the music would

^bring forth.

^ ; Once more the drifting ball of lambent green light

‘^sgippeared before Jon-Tom. Yet again a strange new

^(nape appeared in its center and began to take on

flolktity and form. It was utterly different from every-

thing that had preceded it. It bore no resemblance to

;the grandfather clock, or the toy boat, or the rocking

horse, though it did somehow remind Mudge of the

thing Jon-Tom had called a food processor.

Only this thing wasn’t dead. It was noisily, vibrantly

alive. Or was it? Mudge blinked once and saw through

die illusion. No, it wasn’t alive. It merely cloaked

‘ itself with the appearance of life. It generated illu-

sions of life, but in reality it was full of zombies.

The fascinated Brulumpus leaned forward to stare

at it, kicking up small waves at its sides. Multiple

eyeballs slipped round to focus on the thing Jon-

Tom had called up. Jon-Tom had matched intelligence

to materialization perfectly. The Brulumpus ignored

them as though they were no longer there.

Mudge found himself gazing dazedly at the box

full of cavorting zombies. He could understand the

Bmlumpus’s fascination. This was some magic! He

tried to make sense of what the zombies were saying

Alan Dean Poster


and could not. yet somehow their shouts and cries

held him as if paralyzed. He couldn’t pull away,

couldn’t turn his eyes. It was locking onto him tightly

now, taking him prisoner just as it had trapped the

Brulumpus, those strange, soothing, challenging, fre-

netic zombies who at the moment were assaulting

him verbally and visually….

“Double your pleasure, double your run, with

doublegood, doublegood, Doublemint gum!”

Another zombie appeared, and his tone was as

ponderous and lugubrious as that of the Brulumpus.

All the weight of the world was on the poor zombie’s

shoulders as he stared straight out at Mudge and

said, “Do… you.., suffer… from,.. irregularity?”

Something was tugging urgently at Mudge’s arm.

He blinked, to see Jon-Tom staring anxiously down

at him.

“A minute, mate,” he said, not recognizing his own

vioce. “Just a minute. I ‘ave to listen to this ‘ere

message. Tis important, see, and I… 1…” He paused,

licked his lips.

“You what, Mudge?”

“I was just learnin’ ‘ow to save me kitchen “floor

from unsightly waxy yellow buildup. Blimey, and 1

don’t even ‘ave a kitchen floor!”

“Come on, Mudge. Fight it, don’t let it get to you.”

He dragged the otter toward the raft. Mudge

fought weakly.

“But, mate, wot about the ring around me collar?”

“Snap out of it, Mudge!” Jon-Tom slapped him a

couple of times, then shoved him toward the other

paddle pole. By pushing against the paddles, they

managed to slip off the side of the now rock-steady

Brulumpus and back into the water. They pushed

and pulled on the poles for dear life, and the otter

slowly regained consciousness.

“Bugger me for an alderman,” Mudge finally



breathed, “wot were that ‘orrible magic?” Behind

them the Brulumpus was fading under the horizon.

It lay utterly motionless in the water, staring at the

screaming, cheerful, demanding box which had

rendered it instantly comatose. From its back blared a

few last energetic words of farewell.

“Youuuu deserve a breakkkk todayyyyy!”


“What?” He continued to dig at the water, wanting

,to put as much distance as possible between them

,and the part of the swamp that called itself the

^rulumpus in case, just in case, the magic failed.

^- “I’ll never criticize your spellsingin’ again.”

**0h, yes you will,” Jon-Tom said with a grin.

“Nope, never.” Mudge raised his right paw. “I

, swears on the best parts o’ Chenryl de Vole, Timswitty’s

slickest courtesan.” He eyed the trail the raft had left

in the water and shuddered. “It ‘ad me, too, mate.

Sucked me right in without me ever knowin’ wot was

‘Stppenin’. Bloody insidious.” He looked back at his

companion as they both ducked some dangling moss.

**Wot does you call the mind-suckin’ little ‘orror?”

“Commercial television,” Jon-Tom told him. “I think

dial’s all that it’s going to play. Twenty-four hours

nonstop ’round-the-clock.”

“It’ll be too soon if I never see anything like it


“I only hope it doesn’t burn out the Brulumpus’s

brain.” Jon-Tom murmured. “For a pile of ooze, he

wasn’t such a bad sort.”

“Ah. mate, that soft ‘cart will be the end o’ you one

o* these days. You’d smile on your own assassin.”

“I can’t help it, Mudge. I tike folks, no matter what

they happen to look like.”

“Just keep in mind that most of *em probably don’t

like you.**

Alan Dean Porter


Jon-Tom looked thoughtful. “Maybe 1 should sing

another few jingles, just to reinforce the spell.”

“Maybe you should just paddle, mate.”

“See?” Jon-Tom smiled at the otter. “I told you

you’d start criticizing my spellsinging again.”

“It ain’t your spellsingin’ 1 ‘ave a ‘ard time with,

guv. *Tis your voice.”

The argument continued all the rest of that day

and on into the next, by which time they were

confident they’d passed beyond the Brulumpus’s

sphere of influence. Several days later they received

a pleasant surprise. The landscape was changing

again, and so was the climate.

As far as Mudge was concerned, the lessening of

humidity was long overdue, as was the appearance of

some real dry land. The Wrounipai began to assume

the aspect of tropical lake country instead of near-

impenetrable swamp. Islands rose high and solid

above the water, from which accumulated scum and

suspended solids were beginning to disappear. In-

stead of pooling aimlessly around trees and islets.

the water began to flow steadily southward. Currents

could become rivers, and rivers gave rise to commerce.


They could not be too far from their destination.

And then, as had happened on more than one

occasion, growing confidence was dispelled by an

unexpected disaster.

On calm water beneath a windless sky, the world

turned upside down.

Jon-Tom was thrown into the air, legs kicking,

arms thrashing. He hit the water hard and righted

himself. But as he started to swim for the surface,

something grabbed him around the ankles. He felt

himself being dragged downward, away from the

fading light of the sky, away from the oxygen his

burning lungs were already starting to demand.



He couldn’t see what had ahold of him and wasn’t

sure he wanted to. The harder he kicked and pulled

with his arms, the faster he seemed to be going

backward. Down, straight down toward the bottom

of the Wrounipai. His lungs no longer burned; they

threatened to explode alongside his pounding heart.

The last thing he remembered before he started to

drown was the sight of Mudge off to his left. A far

stronger swimmer than himself, the otter was also

^feeing pulled bottomward by something powerful,

“Streamlined, and indistinct.

|| The nightmare of drowning was still with him

^•When he rolled over and started puking.

^ As soon as he’d cleared his lungs and stomach of

,*^what felt like half the Wrounipai, he sat up and

^^lakily took stock of his surroundings. He was sitting

^on a mat of dry grass and reeds that had been placed

-; atop a floor of tightly compacted earth. Diffuse light

poured through the curved, transparent dome

overhead. It looked like glass but wasn’t.

Off to his left, Mudge stood examining one wall of

die dome. In front of the mat was a pool of water

Which lapped gently at the packed earth. The water

was very dark.

Sensing movement, the otter glanced in his direction.

**I was beginnin’ to wonder if you’d ever come around,


**So was I.” He climbed unsteadily to his feet. “I

think for a minute there, there was more water

inside me than out.” He coughed again. His mouth

tasted of swamp and his guts were throbbing.

“Where are we?”

“V^e are in somebody’s ‘ometown, mate,” the otter

informed him glumly, “and I don’t think you’re goin’

to Kke the somebodies.”

“What do you mean?” Mudge’s words implied

familiarity with their captors, but Jon-Tom had nev-

Alan Dean Poster


er been in a place like this in his life. At least, not

that he could recall.

The otter beckoned him over. ” ‘Ave a look at this


Jon-Tom moved to join him in inspecting the wall

of their transparent prison. As he ran his ^fingers

over it, he saw it wasn’t glass, as he’d initially suspected.

Nor was it plastic. Actually, it was slightly sticky, like a

clear glue. He had to yank his fingers clear of the

wall. A portion of it stuck to his nails and he had to

rub the stuff off on his pants.

Something else: his pants were dry. That meant

he’d been unconscious for several hours, at least.

The wall did not run or drip. As for the source of

the dim, rippling light, that was instantly apparent-

The dome rested on the bottom of the lake. The

Wrounipai was overhead, and the surface, Jon-Tom

estimated, was a good sixty feet out of reach. He

couldn’t be certain. He wasn’t used to judging the

depth of water from below.

He turned back to the wall. “I think it’s some kind

of secretion.”

“You mean, somebody went and spit it up.””

“In so many words, yes.” He waved his hand at the

ceiling of the dome. “This is all organic, not manu-


A recent memory made him stare down at the

otter again.

“You said this was somebody’s home.’*

“Oi, that 1 did.” Mudge led him across the cham-

ber and had him look out the other side of their


The dome rested on a gentle slope which fell off

sharply just beyond the structure’s outer edge- A

profusion of similar buildings occupied the lake bot-

tom another fifty feet further down. Their architec-

ture was unfamiliar. All were simple in design and



devoid of visible ornamentation. Shapes moved slowly

through and among them.

Jon-Tom recognized a few of the shapes, and the

small hairs on the back of his neck stiffened as some

of -the most unpleasant moments of his life came

back to him in a rush.

“1 told you, you wouldn’t like it,” Mudge murmured.

Jon-Tom moved as close to the wall of the dome as

he could without making contact with the sticky

material and stared into the depths. Despite the dim

light there was no mistaking the identity of their


Plated Folk.


They didn’t belong here, in these warm, tranquil

waters so far from their stinking home in the distant

Greendowns. The Plated Folk were the builders of

the implacable insect civilization which he and

Clothahump had helped to defeat at the battle of the

Jo-Troom Gate not so very long ago. This wasn’t the

Greendowns, and Clothahump had said nothing about

the possibility of encountering any of them on the

way to Quasequa.

Therefore Clothahump himself knew nothing of

their presence here. That was a disquieting thought.

It meant that in all likelihood, neither did anyone

else in the warmlands.

“This is crazy. What are they doing so far from

their homeland? A colony of them wouldn’t be toler-

ated by the locals.”

“I agree, mate. Any self-respectin’ warmlanders

would run the ‘ard-shelled bastards all the way back

to that cesspool they call *ome. If they knew they

were settlin’ in to stay in their own backyards, that is.

But think about it: this ‘ere’s pretty empty country,

and these oversized cockroaches are all underwater-

dwellers. Ain’t nobody goin’ to raise the alarm over a

bunch o’ invaders they can’t see.”




“It’s hard to believe that they haven’t been seen by

a few hunting parties out from Quasequa or some

other town.”

“Maybe they have been seen, mate.” Mudge’s words

wexe short and clipped. “Maybe them that sees *em

ends up down ‘ere like us, and maybe they never gets

‘ome to tell anyone else about wot they’ve seen.”

Silently, they turned back to the wall and stared

out into the poisoned waters. Jon-Tom saw waterboat-

men paddling along on their backs, their eyes cast

forever downward. Dragonfly nymphs were nursed

along- by water tigers, and water beetles of every

imaginable shape and size swooped gracefully above

the buildings of the colony.

If it was a colony. They had no proof of that yet.

“You think they have any contact with the capital

of the empire at Cugluch, or could this be an isolated,

independent community?”

Mudge scratched at his whiskers. “1 couldn’t say

for sure, mate, but while you were lyin’ there ‘alf-

dead, a couple of ’em came in to check on us and did

somethin’ that doesn’t make me feel any too confi-

dent about our future.”

“What’s that?”

“They took your duar.”

That was bad, Jon-Tom mused, very bad. “Maybe,”

he suggested lamely, “they were just curious about


“Right,” agreed Mudge sardonically, “They’re just

a bunch o’ bug-eyed music lovers and they likes to

collect instruments. Maybe they’ll also want you to

play a solo for ’em later, but I wouldn’t count on it.

T^sey spent too much time examinin’ it and starin’ at

you and whisperin’.”

“What are our chances of breaking out of here?”

Jon-lbm stared up at the faint, twitching point of

light that was the distant sun.

Alan Dean Foster


“This bloody wall’s as solid as iron, mate. There’s

only the one way in and out, and 1 don’t think we’ll

be makin’ a swim for it anytime soon.” He drew

Jon-Tom over to the pool of water that was visible just

inside one section of wall. “See, I don’t think we’d get

very far.”

Drifting just below and outside the entrance to the

dome was a terrifying marine form. The giant water

bug was at least eight feet in length. It hovered in

place like an armored submersible, displaying open

mandibles big enough to snap off an arm or leg

with a single bite.

Jon-Tom nodded to himself. “So we don’t take any

casual baths.” He looked past the guard. Something

much smaller was moving toward them through the

water. He found himself backing away. “What’s that?”

Mudge didn’t budge. “Air delivery.”

The three-foot-long beetle had hind legs twice the

length of its body, each covered with dense, flexible

hairs. Upon reaching the entrance to the dome it

pivoted in the water until its hind end was facing the

opening. Between its back legs was a thin sicken

envelope full of air. It backed toward the entrance

and kicked once.

The silk envelope split. There was a giant btup,

water sloshed over Jon-Tom’s feet and then receded,

and a sudden wash of fresh air hit him like a spring

breeze. The beetle swam away.

“They do that regular,” Mudge informed him,

“which is why the air in ‘ere ain’t gone sour on us


“That’s thoughtful of them.”

Mudge turned and began nervously pacing the

hard-packed floor. “Wish I could say the same for

the rest o’ their manners. I ain’t so sure I’d prefer

not to suffocate.” After completing half a dozen


circumnavigations of the dome, he stopped in front

of the entryway again.

“Now I know I’m faster than that big bastard, if I

could just get past ‘im.” He let the thought trail off.

“Trouble is, I’d probably do it in pieces.”

Jon-Tom moved back to the reed mat and sat

down. “I never saw them hit us.”

“Neither did 1, mate, until it was too late.” He

pointed toward the giant water bug floating placidly

outside their prison. “That hunk of armored vomit

came up underneath us., and dumped us in. His

smaller relations were waidn’ to drag us down ‘ere.”

He looked over at his cOan&anion.

“When theyspdumped l|s |n this ‘alf bubble, your

face was all sw^ll up like ayifiird’s bladder. I thought

y^a.were a golfer for sure-CTBey did a little dance on

ytyur;j)ack an<^ pumped atx’i-tt ‘alf a gallon o’ water

otit o^ou, th^n gave up an^Uleft- After a couple of

‘ groanirf, ^en fell asleep. I wiped

face and figured I might as well

woke up. That was yesterday.”

I- “I figured I must’ve been out

happened to our raft and supplies?”

Hsr the lake .bottom,” Mudge told

u|e^idn’t see fit to salvage. They’ve

feapoitt iff’a little dry storage area over

the ^ter from ruinin’ ‘cm. Exhibit A

:utiongyd wliger.”


|he droo

lurait and




him sadly.

got ^11 oui

there, to k

for the pr


separated f

smaller, air-

ons and personal be

terminate number o

nt toJIwyalf Nfext to then- prison and

>, it by omy a; foot of water/was a much

ff^ d®n»e. Il^was cramh^ckwith weap-

gings scavenged from an inde-

similarly unlucky travelers to

this part of the Wrounipai. The most recent acquisi-

tions were clearly visible atop a wooden hamper: his

ramwood staff and sword; Mudge’s longbow and arrows

and short sword; some of their food stock; and atop

Alan Dean Foster


everything else, dry and apparently undamaged, his

precious duar. If not for the intervening water and

walls he might have reached out and grabbed it.

“Mudge, if we could just get ahotd of my duac…”

“Then you’d charm ’em all with your sweet songs.

mate. Unfortunately, there’s only one way out o’ ‘ere,

and 1 ain’t about to try it unless that mobile butcher

shop out there swims off to take a crap or somethin’,

Uh-oh.” He started backing toward the far wall.

Jon-Tom looked around nervously. “What’is it,

what’s wrong?”


Jon-Tom hurried to join him.

One by one, a trio of Plated Folk entered the

chamber. Spend the majority of their lives beneath

the water they might, but they still had to go up to

the surface from time to time to breathe. Their

bodies concealed lungs, not gills. So they built air

chambers to live in, like the imprisoning dome.

Two of them looked like twins- They wore some

kind of thin, unrusted metal armor. Jon-lbm thought

it might have been tarnished copper, but he wasn’t

certain. Each was about four feet in height.

The third was a tall, reedy character who looked

something like a hydrotropic walking stick but really

resembled no insect Jon-Tom had ever seen before

on this world or his own. It wore no armor and,

unlike its two stocky companions, carried no weapons.

Instead, in one set of pincers it held several thin

sheets of metal thick with engraving.

This sickly seven-footer bent to confer with its

aides. Together they appeared to discuss the con-

tents of the metal sheets. Then it straightened to its

full height and pointed an accusatory finger in Jon-

Tom’s direction.

“There is no question. He is the one.”

“Is the one!” his two shadows declared loudly.


“Is the one what?” Jon-Tom asked innocently.

**The music wizard who called forth the fire horse

and slew the Empress Skrritch at theJo-Troom Gate.

You are he,”

Jon-Tom burst out laughing. “I’m who? Look, friend,

I never heard of the Jo-Troom Gate or the Empress

Skrritch or any of what you’re talking about. My

companion here and I are wanderers in this land.

We’re just a little while out from Quasequa, having

ourselves a bit of vacation. I swear I don’t know what

the devil you’re talking about!”

“But you do know about lying. That much is

evident,” murmured the tall speaker, “because you

do it so forcefully. You are the wizard. There is no

point in denying it.”

“But I do deny it. Forcefully, as you put it.”

The pair of shorter insects moved toward him,

drawing their short, curved swords. Barbs protruded

from the sicklelike cutting edges.

They lumbered past him and one put a sword

against Mudge’s throat. The otter made no effort to

dodge. There was nowhere to hide.

The fixed chitin could not convey much in the

way of expression, but the speaker’s meaning was

dear to Jon-Tom nonetheless. “Do you deny it still?”

Jon-Tom swallowed. “Maybe I did participate in

the battle for the Gate, but so did half the inhabit-

ants of the warmlands.”

The sword pressed tight against Mudge’s Adam’s

apple, trimming some of the hair from his neck.

*And 1 have some faint recollection of perhaps possi-

bly maybe participating in some small way in the

casting of some minor spell,” Jon-Tom added hastily.

The hooked scimitar withdrew and the otter

breathed again.

“That is better,” said the speaker.

“No need to take it so personal,” Jon-Tom said,

Alan Dean Foster


but the speaker ignored him, spoke instead to his

two aides.

“This is a great day for this outpost of Empire. A

memorable day.” The aides resheathed their swords.

Their chitin was a rich maroon color, black under-

neath and marked by thick black vertical stripes

across the vestigial wing cases. The speaker was

yellow and black, with white spots on his cases.

“There will be decorations for all, and the war coun-

cil will be pleased. The Empress herself will com-

mend us.”

“The Empress?” Jon-Tom blurted it out. There-

seemed no harm, since they were certain of his

identity. “I thought Skrritch was slain during the

battle, as you just said.”

“So she was. 1 refer to the Empress Isstrag, now

reigning. She will preside over your deaths. A small

measure of revenge will be gained for the destruc-

tion you wrought at the Gate. I shall turn you over to

the Dissembling Masters myself. Our land-dwelling

cousins will be most delighted.”

“Your cousins? Then you didn’t participate in the


“Distance precluded our lending aid to our cous-

ins in the Greendowns, and in any case the battle was

waged upon the land. We could have been of litde

help. We regretted our exclusion. Now you have pro-

vided us with a means to make up for it.”

“If you didn’t join in the fight, then you’ve got

nothing against us, and we’ve got nothing against

you,” Jon-Tom argued desperately. “Why not let us

go on our way? We’ve no quarrel with the inhabit-

ants of Cugluch.”

“Ah, but they have a lingering quarrel with you,

wizard. Your dismemberment will bring much honor

on our isolated community. All will gain in prestige.



You must be kept alive and well for your delivery to

the Masters”

“Look, guv’nor,” said Mudge, “I know I don’t ‘ave

a ‘ole lot o’ leverage ‘ere, but if you’re bound and

determined to deliver us to this new Empress and ‘er

private torturers, ‘ow about turnin’ us in dead?”

The speaker shook his head. “That would mitigate

the delight of the royal court.”

“Aw, gee, that’d be a shame, wouldn’t it?” said

Mudge saracastically.

The speaker missed it. “It speaks well of you that

z you should take such an attitude. That is commend-

^ able in a servant.”


“Servant! Who’s a bloomin’ servant!” Mudge’s

outrage, like Jon-Tom’s earlier disclaimer, was ignored.

“Perhaps the Empress will even allow this unwor-

thy one to be present at the entertainment you will


“Yeah, I’ll wave good-bye to you,” Mudge muttered

– sullenly.

“If not, there will still be ample glory in delivering

you up into her presence.”

“I’m curious about one thing,” Jon-Tom said. “How

did you know who we were?” He indicated the stor-

age chamber outside the main dome. “You’ve obvi-

ously murdered dozens of travelers.”

“Trespassers in our waters.” Bulbous compound

eyes focused on Jon-Tom. “As to the matter of identi-

fying you, you underestimate yourself, man.” The

speaker’s voice was hoarse, a rasping sound, due at

least in part to the long, thin tube of a mouth from

which his words emerged.

“Did you think we are so disorganized as to not

lake care to pass among ourselves descriptions of our

greatest enemies? Do you think we would let them

pass unnoticed among us? Great generals and great

wizards among the warmlanders are well known to

Alan Dean Potter


us. You should be proud to be among the notable,

pleased that you should be so quickly recognized in

a land so far from the place where you did battle ”

Somehow Jon-Tom didn’t feel flattered.'”If you

know that I’m a great wizard, then you must. also

know that I ask these questions only to gratify my

curiosity before we leave this place.”

“I do not think your curiosity strong enough to

cause you to linger this long,” observed the ‘Speaker

cannily. “If you could leave freely, 1 believe you

would already have done so. Indeed, were you capa-

ble of such sorcery, I do not think you ever would

have been captured.” He paused, and Jon-Tom had

the feeling the tall insect was eyeing him curiously.

“There was known to be among the warmlanders

during the battle for the Gate a great and strange

spellsinger. To make magic, a spellsinger of any race

must have an instrument with him.” He gestured

with a three-foot-long arm toward the storage chamber.

“That instrument, perhaps.”

Jon-Tom didn’t look toward his duar. “Perhaps. Or

perhaps this small flute I always carry with me.” He

reached inside his shirt.

The two stocky insects nearly broke their antennae

diving for the exit, jamming tight for an instant

before tumbling to safety in the water beyond. The

giant water bug stirred uneasily, its massive front

pincers flexing.

The tall speaker flinched but did not retreat. He

relaxed when Jon-Tom’s hand stayed concealed in-

side his shirt. “A small amusement. I understand.”

He turned his head to eye the dome’s entrance. His

two aides were peeking cautiously back into the

air-filled chamber.

Jon-Tom didn’t understand the phrasing, but it

certainly sounded like a curse that fell from the

speaker’s speaking tube. A contemptuous curse. The

Tae MojitBarr or THB MAOICSAM 167

aides sl^ly reentered the’^ome under the baleful

gaze of <|(-eir superior. Jon^Ebm’s interpretation of

their expressions was not pleasant.

As thodgh nothing had happened, the speaker

turned back to him. “Tomorrow we will make a

special conveyance for both of yoQ. It will contain a

small air chamber like this one so chat we can travel

safely to Cugluch underwater. There are many riv-

ers and quiet^akes between here and the Greendowns,

and we shouN not have to expose ourselves to the

land-dwellers Very often. There will he no chance of

rescue for you-You might as well enjoy the journey.

You will be pandered.”

“Fatted calvesA Jon-Tom murmured. “How are

you going to cross %aryt’s Teeth?**

“There are rivers that tunnel through the mountains.

We know them. You shaHcome,to know them as well,

though it is knowledge yau .frill never be able to

share. Now I have a question^ man. What were you

intending in this country, so-far south of your own

land, from the region backing onto the Gate?”

Mudge jerked a thumb in Jon-lbm’s direction.

“This one ‘ere, guv’nor. “e’s a bloody tourist, ‘e is. He

likes to get out and see (he wondersao’ nature and all

that crap.” ^

“And whai-^Lf you?”

“Me? That^^asy. See, I’m^barkin’ insah^ ain’t I?

I’d ‘ave to be ^ I wouldn’t be ‘ere.” Witlr^hat he

sat down on th^eeds, a decidedly peeved l^o^on

his face, and rerKfcd to answer any more quertQs.

J!!»^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

The worst they c

“You must be at^

wizai^y. corn mentecT”;

ney beo^een here ai

‘ ^, ^ r

emoy maty adverting co

“•” ^’^”‘jpn-Tomtol

iterestn^ perj^n, spellsinger

.speaker. “Itt^a longjpur-

Greendowns. We may

rsation along the way.”

lim evenly. “I’m-not

with’^asual killers ”

Alan Dean roster


“We are not casual. I am disappointed. I would

have thought your reaction to your situation might

have been more enlightened,” It performed a ges-

ture that might have stood for a shrug, or, might

have meant something else entirely.

“It will make no difference in the final judgment.

You know your fate.”

With dignity, the speaker turned and vanished

through the watery portal, flanked by his stocky aides.

There was respect in the giant water bug’s movements

as it swam aside to let the trio pass. Jon-Tom watched

the speaker swim slowly around the dome, heading

back down toward the buildings below.

There was a rush of water from the entrance. The

giant water bug’s head, with its massive mandibles,

was even more impressive out of the water.

“YOU STAY,” it grunted in a crackling voice, then

pulled clear to resume its motionless patrol. Water

surged in after it, making their humid prison damp-

er than ever.

“Tomorrow, he said,” Jon-Tom murmured, gazing

toward the watery sky. Already it was growing dark

inside the dome as the sun sank toward the horizon.

“That doesn’t give us much time.”

“It doesn’t give us any time, mate. We’re doomed.”

“Never use that word around me, Mudge. I refuse

to acknowledge it.”

“Right you are, mate. We’re stuck.” The otter turned

away, bemoaning his fate.

In truth, there seemed no way out Even if they could

somehow manage to slip past their monstrous guard,

their movement through the water could be detected

and recognized instantly by any of the vibration-

sensitive inhabitants of the underwater community.

As for the dome, if they cut a hole in it, water

would pour in and prevent any exit. In any case, it

would take at least a week to make an impression on



that hard, sticky material with Mudge’s claws and his

fingernails. It was as if they were imprisoned in a cell

completely encased in alarm wires. All they had to

do was move to trip one.

That didn’t keep him from thinking about escape,

but by the time they’d finished the evening meal

their captors thoughtfully provided, he was forced to

admit that his usually fertile imagination could gener-

ate nothing in the way of a plan. Not even a sugges-

tion of a plan.

Mudge was right this time. They were stuck. May-

be they would have a better opportunity to escape

during the long journey to Cugluch. In that case,

he’d only hurt their chances by not sleeping.

The mat was soft, but not reassuring.

“Where’s the other one?” said an excited, rasping


Jon-Tom opened his eyes. It was light inside the

dome again, but barely. The sun was still rising. He

shivered in the damp cold air.

The dome was alive with activity. Sitting up on the

reeds, he tried to force his eyes to adjust to the

feeble light. Busy water beetles scurried around,

inspecting the walls, sniffing at the floor, tearing the

reed mat up around him. All of them carried six-

inch-long knives.

He counted at least a dozen of them. Two ran past,

still shedding water from their recent entry. As his

brain began to clear he saw that they were not

merely active; they were downright agitated.

Standing close to the entrance was the speaker.

His maroon aides huddled close to him. Their swords

were drawn and they, too, were searching the interi-

or of the dome anxiously.

Then the speaker’s words, filtered through his

half-asleep thoughts, struck home.

Aim Dean Footer


•’Mudge?” He got on all fours, feeling through the

reeds where the otter had been sitting last night.

“Mudge!” The otter’s musk was still strong in the

enclosed chamber. That, and the impression of his

body in the reeds, was all that remained of him.

When Jon-Tom rose, he was immediately sur-

rounded by three of the sword-wielding water beetles.

He put their edginess and Mudge’s apparent absence

together and reached an inescapable conclusion.

The otter had split.

As the rising sun shed more light on the search,

his smile grew wider and wider. The Plated Folk

were already repeating themselves. After all. there

were only a limited number of possible hiding places

within the dome. Somehow Mudge had made it to

freedom without waking his companion or alarming

their giant guard.

He wasn’t angry with the otter for not alerting

him. Obviously, whatever avenue of escape he’d

followed wasn’t suitable for the gangly Jon-Tom, or

Mudge would have gotten both of them out. Sure he

would. Jon-Tom refused to believe otherwise-

He wouldn’t allow himself to believe otherwise.

Besides, it was only justice. Only fair that having

been unwillingly dragooned into this expedition,

Mudge should be the one to escape with his life.

Then there was no more time to bask in the

success of the otter’s chicanery because the speaker

was towering over him.

Bright compound eyes gazed down at the single

remaining prisoner, and that raspy voice repeated

the question it had asked of its minions only minutes


“Where is the other one? The short furry slave?”

“He’s not a slave,” Jon-Tom said defiandy. “As for

your first question, why don’t you go screw yourself

and see if it brings forth enlightenment?” He de-



rived unexpected pleasure from the vehemence of

his reply.

It had absolutely no effect on the speaker. “Tell me

or i will have your limbs removed.”

“What, and deprive the Empress of so much

delight?” Jon-Tom grinned up at the speaker. “Not

that it matters. I don’t know where he is any more

than you do. Your folks woke me out of a sound

sleep. You were here and Mudge was gone. Where to

I couldn’t say, and I don’t care as long as it’s far away

from here.”

“I do not think you are telling the truth, but as you

say, it matters not. You are here and he is gone. You

are the important one anyway. You are the one they

will greet with joy in Cugluch. The flight of the

other is irritating. That is all.” He gestured with a

long arm. The chitin Hashed in the light.

Several short laborers were bringing something

long and rectangular through the entrance. It looked

uncomfortably like a coffin, for all that Jon-Tom

knew it was designed to preserve his life, not his


“The means by which you will be transported

safely to Cugluch,” the speaker explained unnecessarily.

“The escort is ready- Now you will be made ready.”

Jon-Tom tried to take a step backward, only to

find himself hemmed in on all sides. He was much

taller than every one of the Plated Folk with the

exception of the speaker, but they were stocky and


“What do you mean, ‘ready* me?”

The speaker elucidated. “One as clever and well

versed in the arcane arts as you is always a threat,

even without your magic-making instrument. I will

take no chances on you working mischief during our

journey, or on suiciding at the last moment.”

Long arms pushed. Jon-Tom felt himself shoved to.

Alan Dean Foster


one side. Looking past the speaker he could see

something like a five-foot-long cockroach waiting

patiently near the portal. An air-Filled ovo^d was

strapped to its back. Within, he could see his ramwood

staff, duar, and the rest of the supplies that had been

salvaged from their raft. The laborers were strap-

ping the air-filled bier onto the back of another.

Then the speaker stepped aside, revealing the

ugliest speciman of Plated Folk Jon-Tom had ever

seen. It walked on alt sixes instead of fours like the

speaker and water beetles. Its body was long and

thin and flattened from head to thorax, while the

abdomen swelled into a grotesque globe- In color it

was mucklededun except for the comparatively small

eyes, which were bright red.

As it moved toward him, it raised its two front

arms. Tiny vestigial wings began to vibrate excitedly

against the thorax, which was very narrow. It was

also the smallest of the Plated Folk in the chamber,

barely three feet long. So was the tightly curled

ovipositor-like tube which protruded from the base

of the bulbous abdomen. It curved up over the

insect’s back and head. The hypodermic tip quivered

in the air a foot in front of the creature’s head.

Jon-Tom found he was breathing fast as he searched

for a place to hide. There was no place to hide.

“Listen, you don’t have do to this,” he told the

speaker, his eyes following that wavering point. “I’m

not going to give you any trouble. I can’t, without my


“This is a reasonable precaution, particularly in

light of the disappearance of your companion,” said

the speaker. “I do not want you to vanish one night

when we are almost to Cugluch.”

“I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t.’* He wasn’t ashamed

of the hysteria rising in his voice. He was genuinely



terrified by the approach of what in essence was a

three-foot-long needle.

**There is no need to struggle,” the speaker as-

sured him. “You can only hurt yourself. The Ruze’s

venom has been used on the warmblooded before. It

knows exactly how large a dose to administer to

render you immobile for the duration of our journey.”

“I don’t give a damn if it’s been to medical school.

You’re not sticking that thing in me!” He jumped to

his right, hoping to clear the surprised guards and

make a run for the water, not caring anymore wheth-

er they used their swords on him or not.

They did not have the chance to react. As soon as

Jon-Tom moved, the Ruze struck. The stinger lashed

down like a striking cobra. Jon-Tom felt a terrific

burning pain between his waist and thighs as the

stinger went right through his pants to catch him

square in the left gluteus. He was surprised at the

( intensity of his scream. It was as if someone had

given him an injection of acid.

The Ruze backed away, its work completed, and

studied the human with interest. Beetle guards spread

out. Jon-Tom staggered a couple of steps toward the

entryway before collapsing. One hand went to his

left buttock, where the fire still burned, while he

tried to pull himself forward with his other hand.

The coldness started in his legs. It traveled rapidly

up his thighs, then spread through the rest of his

body- It wasn’t uncomfortable. Only frightening. When

it reached his shoulders, he collapsed on his stomach.

Somehow he managed to roll over onto his back. His

elbows locked up in front of his eyes, then his wrists

and fingers.

The long, thin, bug-eyed face of the speaker came

within range of his vision and gazed down at him

from a great height. Jon-Tom fought to make his

vocal cords function.

Alan Dean Foster


“You… Hed… to… me.”

“I did not lie to you.” the speaker replied calmly.

“You will not die. You will only be made incapable of


“Not that.” It. took a tremendous effort for him to

speak. His words were weak and breathy. ‘*You said

it… wouldn’t… hurt.”

The speaker did not reply, continued to regard

him as it would something moving feebly beneath a


Jon-Tom wondered how long the effects of the

injection would last. How many times between here

and Cugluch would he be subjected to the Ruze’s fiery

attentions? Once a week? Every morning? Better that

he find some way of killing himself quickly. He couldn’t

even do that now. His paralysis was their security.

It was difficult to tell if the speaker was pleased,

apologetic, or indifferent. As for the Ruze, it was

only doing a job. The dose it had injected had been

delivered with a surgeon’s skill.

Satisfied, it nodded its absurdly small head and

indicated that the task of immobilizing the prisoner

had been completed. The speaker turned to a group

of unarmed water beetles waiting patiently nearby.

Jon-Tom felt stiff, uncaring hands turning him. He

wanted to resist, to strike out against his tormentors,

but the only things he could move were his eyes.

Then they were placing him in the oversized glass

coffin and preparing to load it onto the back of the

waiting cockroach-thing. Inside the water-tight con-

tainer it was peaceful, silent, warm. He fought against

falling asleep: that was what they wanted him to do,

so he stubbornly resisted doing it.

The speaker was nearby, giving orders. Jon-Tom

was lifted into the air, and thin straps were passed

over and around his container. He could tell he was

being moved only because he could see movement


through the transparent material. He could feel


Then he was falling. The coffin had slipped, or

been dropped. There was a rush of new activity

around nim, but the cause of it remained foreign to

his senses. His vision was starting to blur from the

effects of the Ruze’s toxin. Soon he would be asleep

despite his best efforts to stay awake-

Staring straight upward he thought he could make

out a vast dark shape coming toward him. It was

blocking out the sunlight. For an instant it appeared

to linger near the apex of the dome, and then the

dome came apart. It did not crack or split like glass

or plastic. It simply imploded.

An explosive influx of water sent his coffin spinning,

along with the bodies of his captors. With his

perception already distorted, it was impossible to tell

which direction he was tumbling-

He was alone, a pebble in a bottle, a tiny human

marble being bounced between floor and walls. Some-

thing had shattered the dome. That much he was

certain of. He wanted to cry out as the water spun

him in circles, but his tongue and vocal cords were

paralyzed now. It didn’t matter. There was no one to

hear him.

The wall collapsed, and the swirling currents threw

him outside the broken enclosure. The angry waters

quieted. It was peaceful outside the boundaries of

the ruined dome, though stirred-up sediments clouded

the pristine water of the lake. Or was the darkness

only in his mind?

It seemed as though he was falling now, still tum-

bling over and over, bouncing down the side of the

underwater hill on which his prison had been

constructed. He fell slowly because of the water and

because of the air within his coffin. The latter was

already beginning to smell stale. When he started to

Aian Dean Foster


black out, he suspected it was due not to the afteref-

fects of the injection he’d received but to the deple-

tion of his small air supply.

In his drugged fashion he was elated. He would

not have to suffer repealed visits from the Ruze, nor

some slow and painful dismemberment in distant

Cugluch. He was going to die here and now. He

would have smiled if his paralysis had permitted it.

The Plated Folk were going to be cheated of their

ceremonial revenge.

Then the darkness came to him, and he welcomed



After an eternity it occurred to him that the tem-

perature around him was rising. Not so surprising in

death, perhaps, but it did surprise him that he could

sense the change.

He tried to open his eyes. The muscles protested.

It was as though he were not completely dead. He

tingled all over, an excruciating sensation.

Since his eyes weren’t functioning, he tried to

move his lips. They worked, but fitfully. He forced

them to. He badly wanted a swallow of air.

When he finally managed that complicated series

of movements, he tried to scream. The air went

down his throat and into his lungs like a chunk of

raw liver. The next swallow was easier, however.

Long-dormant glands generated saliva, and this helped

even more.

Possibly he was not dead. He argued the point

with the rest of his body, which insisted he was. He

had drowned or suffocated or both, but he certainly

wasn’t alive.

Exhibit A for the defense: he could breathe. The

prosecution faltered in its argument, and then the

case for his demise was in tatters. Nothing like intro-

ducing a surprise piece of evidence at the critical


Alan Dean Foster


moment, he mused. But now he would have to prove

to the court that he was capable of consciousness.

First witness for the defense to the stand. I

call… sight! Open one lid and swear on your optic

nerve. Do you solemnly swear to see, to perceive, to

provide a view of the world arould this not-quite-

corpse? I do.

Someone was staring down at him, a fuzzy moon

of a face. It wore an anxious expression. There was a

black nose; a lot of brown fur; bright concerned

eyes; and whiskers that twitched.

“Madge,” he mumbled. Someone had filled his

mouth with glue.

The face broke out in a scintillating smile and

looked away from him. “Now, ain’t that interestin’. ‘E

thinks I’m ‘is friend.”

A calming, reassuring, confident voice. Only prob-

lem was, it didn’t belong to Mudge. It was too

high-pitched. \

Jon-Tom put a hand to one ear, deU|

was able to do so, and did some plumt

fed that he

“Take it easy, man,” the voice ^tt^ “V

so good.” “<1

in’t look

“That’s appropriate,” he mumbled. Str^ftgth was

flowing back into him along with consciousness. “I

don’t feel so good either.”

The otter leaning over him was definitely not

Mudge. In place of the familiar green felt cap and

feather, this stranger wore a leather beret decorated

with glass buttons- The face was slimmer than Mudge’s,

1|a, features more delicate. Instead of a simple vest it

^^^a comptex assortment of straps and metal rings.

iJO’^^fean that he cottldn’t see. Changing his line of

sight.y^yeL ha^ meapt raising himself up on his

elbowg^^life^tin^eel he was ready for that yet.

“Hi/^ic^^^ler^.’Me name’s Quorly. You’re

cute. Mu8it&-(Sd me you were cute, but not very

“•» ‘-_ •» ‘



bright. I thought a spellsmger was supposed to be


Maybe it was the curled eyelashes, Jon-Tom told

himself. Or the streaks of paint above the eyes

themselves. Makeup? Or war paint? He couldn’t decide.

Another otterish face hove into view and smiled

hesitantly down at him. Still not Mudge. This one

was too wide, almost pudgy. Somehow the idea of a

fat otter seemed like a contradiction in terms, but

there was no denying the new arrival’s species, or

corpulence. He wore a wide, floppy chapeau that

drooped over his eyes. ^

“This is Norgil,” said Quorly. s.

“Hiyal” The new arrival frowned over atthe female.

Female. Quorly was a she, Jon-Tom Decided. So

the face paint was makeup, then..0r tpaybe it was

makeup and war paint. With ‘otters, according to

what Mudge had told him, you <3^uld never be sure.

“Think ‘e can ‘ear us?” NorgUFAsked*

“I can…” Jon-Tom was startlftd b^’the croaking

sound that issued from his throaJS H^ JEried again. “I

can… hear you. Who are you?” ^ |k }

“See?” Quorly beamed down at Sy^ as she spoke

to her companion. “He’s alive. ThatJtfUdge chap was

right. He’s just a little slow.” She, s^^ tb Jon-Tom.

“I just told you. I’m Quorly, and vyi^^ Norgil.” She

looked to her left and gestured, “^gtos^’you feel up

to it I’ll introduce you to MemaWj^p^ph, Frangel,

Sasswize, Drortch, Knorckle, VVi.ipp.j^^iiLzasaraiig-

elik… but you can call him V^^Sfi’S1

The names all ran together ii?^^-im’s brain.

He’d have to try and sort them <^|^^f’-

At the moment, all his energies ^^fe^ncentrated

on the difficult task of sitting up. \<l}iea he failed at

that, he settled for turning over on Ins left side. This

operation he accomplished with some success, save

for throwing up effusively and compelling his two

Alafi Dean Foster


attendants to jump clear. Despite his bulk, Norgil

proved himself as agile as any otter, moving with a

kind of high-speed waddle.

*”E’s alive, all right,” said Norgil disgustedly.

They were on an island, Jon-Tom knew. He could

tell it was an island because he could see the water of

the Wrounipai off in the distance. Of the Plated Folk

there was no sign-

He glanced past his feel and was rewarded with a

view of lean-tos, more elaborate temporary shelters,

and a couple of crackling fires. Two unfamiliar,

outrageously attired otters were broiling several huge

fish on a long spit over the larger of the two blazes.

Several others were sliding spitted, cleaned fish on

long poles and setting them out to dry in the sun.

“We’re a ‘unting party,” Quorly informed him.

” Tis a lot easier to make a good ‘aul when there’s a

bunch o* you all workin’ together. ‘Tis also more fun.

We do right well. Usually don’t come this far north,

but ’tis been a long time since anyone tried to tap this

district, so we thought we’d give ‘er a looksee. Lucky

damn good thing for your arse that we did.”

Another shape was approaching- Norgil moved

aside to give the newcomer room. And at last, a

familiar face and voice.

“Top o* the mornin’ to you, mate!” Mudge pushed

his cap back on his forehead, gave Jen-Tom a quick

once-over, and put an affectionate arm around Quoriy’s

waist. She leaned back into him, grinning.

No wonder Mudge was smiling so broadly, Jon-

Tom mused. It had been a while since he’d been with

any of his own kind. He struggled to smile back.

“Hello, Mudge.”

” *0w you feelin’, mate?”

“Like a reused tortilla: pounded fiat on both sides ”

“Don’t know wot that be. but you look beat-up for

sure. ‘Ad a bad moment or two down there” He


nodded to his right- “Couldn’t find you nowheres.

Old Memaw spotted the box they’d stuck you in

slidin’ down the side o’ the embankment. If she

‘adn*t o’ seen you when she did, ii’d been too late for

you by ftie time we’d o’ found it.”

Jon-Tom noddec^ “I believe I’d like to try sitting up


“Think you’re up to it, mate?”

“No, but I’m going to try anyway.”

Strong, short arms helped support him. For a

minute he thought he was going to throw up again.

His friends looked alarmed and he hastened to reas-

sure them.

“No, I’m belter now, it’s okay. It’s the aftereffects

of the shit they shot into me. My insides are still on a

roller coaster.”

“Wot’s that?” Quorly asked.

“See? I told you ‘e were a strange one, even for a

‘uman,” said Mudge-

She looked sideways at Jon-Tom. “Yes, but *e is


“Don’t you go gettin’ any funny ideas, luv. Besides,

*e ‘as funny ideas ‘imself.” Mudge nodded at Jon-

Tbm. ” ‘As a phobia or somethin’ about stickin’ to ‘is

own kind. Don’t care much for variety.”

“Oh.” Quorly looked solemn, then shrugged. “Well,

‘is business is ‘is business.”

Jen-Tom paid little attention to this casual dissec-

tion of his sexual preferences and tried to massage

some feeling back into his cheeks and forehead.

“What happened? How did you get away?”

“Well, mate, after you fell asleep last night, I

stayed awake rackin* me brain and tryin* to think o’

somethin’. Tis easy to think in the darkness, and it

were damn dark down there once the sun went

Awn. Some o’ them creepy-crawlies ‘ad their own

glow lights, but they didn’t come up around our

Alan Dean Poster


jail. Don’t need much light when you’re used to

gettin’ around by feelin’ the vibrations in the water.

“Anyways, I was fresh out of clever notions when

our delivery bug with the ‘airy ‘ind legs showed up to

make ‘is regular air drop. That’s when it ‘it me,

mate. The only thing comin’ into our cell regular

and unquestioned was air, and the only thing takin’

its own sweet time leavin’ was the bug that brought


“So I gets this idea in me noggin, see, and I kind

of roll over toward the exit like I’m movin’ in me

sleep. The next time delivery bug comes back and

dumps ‘is air I’m restin’ quiet as an undertaker right

close to the water, and I just sort o’ rolls out behind

‘im when ‘e leaves. Didn’t even try to swim, just let

meself float up behind ‘im so as not to upset our

‘ammer-‘anded guard with any undue movements.

‘E never even turned to ‘ave a look, I’m ‘appy to say-

The big ‘ard-shelled ugly bastard.

“Delivery bug never even knew I was ‘auntin’ ‘is

‘eels. Too busy with *is bloody job, I expect. Anyways,

I went up like a bubble, not movin’, until we got near

the surface. Then 1 just let meself drift along like an

old log. After I’d floated for a while, I started

swimmin* real slow-like, ready to break all records

for the ten-leaguer if anythin’ showed up behind me.

Nothin’ did. Got away clean. Didn’t really start movin’

till I was sure I was away safe and unnoticed. Then,

well, you never saw anythin* move through the water

that fast, mate.”

“I was thrilled you escaped, Mudge, but I never

expected you to come back after me.”

Mudge looked a little embarrassed, didn’t look a(

his friend directly. “Well now, mate, to be perfectly

practical about it, I found meself thinkin’ that there

weren’t a whole lot I could ‘ave done for you all by

meself, so I kind of bid you a tearful ‘ail and farewell



and it were nice knowin’ you and struck off back

northward in a big curve. ‘Adn’t gone too far when I

got ‘ungry and found a deep pool full o’ Fish. After

that little swim I was more than a mite starved.

“Wot ‘appened was I got meself good and tangled

up in this big net. Thought those bleedin’ bugs ‘ad

some’ow followed me and caught me all over again.

Wasn’t so much scared as angry with meself.

“Come to find out when I were dragged into the

daylight again that it weren’t our old bulgy-eyed

buddies at all that ‘ad caught me, but a swell lot o’

distant cousins.” He patted Quorly on the derriere

and she giggled.

An extraordinary sound- Jon-Tom had never heard

an otter giggle before.

“You should ‘ave ‘eard ‘im as we were untanglin’

‘im from our net,” she told Jon-Tom. ” ‘Im all tied up

in there with our fish and water reeds and bait and

all. Wot a mouth!”

“I’m just the expressive type is all, luv.” He turned

back to Jon-Tbm. “Anyways, findin* meself among

this ‘ealthy bunch o’ the clan forced me into one ‘ell

o* a battle with me conscience, mate. I couldn’t decide

wot to do. So I decided to leave it up to them as to

whether to take the risk o’ goin’ back and tryin’ to

spring you from the chitinous jaws o’ death, as it

were. And wouldn’t you know that every one o’ the

bloomin* fools opted to do the dumb thing and go

back?” Mudge shook his head sadly. “You’ve been

rescued by a lot o’ certifiable crazies, mate.”

“I am grateful,” Jon-Tom said with feeling, “for

your collective stupidity.”

Quorly blinked at Mudge. “Wot did ‘e say?”

“Don’t pay ‘im no mind, luv. ‘E just talks like that

sometimes- ‘E don’t mean nothin’ by it. See, ‘e were

studyin’ to be a solicitor and ‘e can’t ‘elp ‘imsetf. It’s

kind o’ like a disease o’ the mouth,”

Alan Dean foster


She eyed Jon-Tom appraisingly. “I thought you

were a spellsinger.”

“That too,” Jon-Tom told her.

Mudge leaned close and whispered. “‘E’s a bit

confused about everything, see?” The otter rapped

the side of his head.

“Oh.” Quorly looked properly sympathetic.

Jon-Tom endured everything in silence, partly be-

cause he was used to Mudge and his brand of humor

and partly because he was too happy to be alive and

safe to quibble about being subjected to a little casual


“How did you finally get me out of there?” He

rubbed at his forehead. “All I remember is some-

thing dark and wide blotting out the light and then

the dome breaking.”

Mudge managed the difficult task of strutting while

standing still. “Me sainted mother always told me

that if I ever found meself in a fight with somebody

bigger than me, to find meself a rock big enough to

make things equal. So the lot o’ us did some ‘untin’

until we found a really nice ‘unk o’ stone lyin’ loose

on one o’ the larger islands ‘ereabouts. No easy job

in this muddy slop. it were.

“We wrestled it into the toughest fishin’ net they’d

brung with ’em, and then the bunch o’ us swam over

with it this mornin’ and dropped it square on top o*

their precious dome.” He grinned at the memory.

“Busted it all to ‘ell”

“It could have crushed me, too,” Jon-Tom murmured


Mudge shrugged. ” ‘Ad to take a couple o’ chances,

mate. As soon as they saw us comin’, which was

mighty late, for which I’m grateful, the Plated Pricks

started organizin* a defense. But the last thing they

expected were an attack, and they didn’t make a very

good job o’ ‘andlin’ it. For one thing there ain’t the



bug alive that can outswim one o’ us otters. Ain’t

much o’ anythin* that can, especially when we put

our minds to a specific job-

“And if we’d caught you accidentally under our

little gift^ weli, you wouldn’t ‘ave been any worse off

than if we ‘adn’t dropped the rock at all.”

“True enough,” Jon-Tom had to admit.

“We were a little woftried,” Quorly told him, “that

it might not be big enough to break your prison.”

“Sure made a mess o’ it,” said Norgil with satisfaction.

“It was fun! We swam circles around ’em, though we

did ‘ave that bad time when we couldn’t find you


“The surge of water when the dome collapsed

pushed me over the side,” Jon-Tbm explained.

“Right, mate,” said Mudge. “Memaw spotted you

and then we lowtailed it out o* there before those

bugs we didn’t crack on the ‘eads could get their wits

together. Oh, and you remember our charmin* ‘ost,

the speaker? I ‘ad the distinct pleasure o* seein* ‘is

‘ead caught under our rock. As ‘e were the only one

o’ that lot who seemed to ‘ave any brains much, I

don*t think they’ll be comin’ after us anytime soon.”

Jon-Tom digested this, nodded. When he finally

stood, the movement prompted waves and shouts of

greeting from the rest of the band. “You really think

we’re safe here?”

“Ought to be,” Quorly told him. “Besides them

losin* their leader, as Mudge just said, we took a

roundabout ways back to our camp and ‘id our

scents well. And we’re a long ways from their town.”

She shook her head, her words full of disbelief.

. “Plated Folk, right ‘ere in the Lakes District. Who

would ‘ave thought it possible?”

“Lakes District? Then we’re not in the Wrounipai


Alan Dean Foster


She gestured northward. “Boundary kind o’ wan-

ders about, but we’re right on the edge.”

“How do you tell where one stops and the, other


“Use our noses,” she informed him. “When it

smells clean we know we’re in the Lakes. When it

starts stinkin’ we know we’re in the Wrounipai.”

Jon-Tom considered this, said almost inaudibly, “1

don’t know how we can thank you for what you’ve


She shrugged. “No big deal. Like Norgil says, it

were kind o’ fun. Got to do somethin’ once in a while

for excitement or life gets downright borin’.”

Jon-Tom shook Norgil’s hand, then Mudge’s, and

moved to do the same with Quorly. She ignored his

outstretched palm, threw both paws around his neck,

and yanked him down with surprising strength to

plaster a couple of dozen short, sharp kisses on his

face. He fought to pull clear. It was like being

attacked by a wet machine gun.

Mudge thoroughly enjoyed his friend’s discomfiture.

“Now, don’t go gettin’ all flustered, mate. That’s just

the way we otters is. Real friendly- and affectionate-

like.” He hugged Quorly to him. “Ain’t that right,

luv?” She generated that exceptional giggle again

and Jon-Tom eyed her warily lest she ambush him a

second time. He tried to visualize her giggling as she

rammed one of the Plated Folk through the thorax

with her fishing spear.

“Come on then, mate, and meet the rest o’ the

gang.” Mudge put one arm around jon-Tbm’s waist

and guided him toward the camp, kept the other

locked securely around Quorly.

It was more like dumping him into a blender full

of nuts, Jon-Tom mused as he tried to sort out his

mob of new friends. The hyperkinetic fishing party

swarmed over him, prodding, poking, hand-shaking,



kissing, and asking questions at a rate only slightly

this side of supersonic. Over the past months he’d

finally managed to learn how to cope with one otter.

Trying to deal simultaneously on a coherent basis

with eleven of them was beyond the capability of any

sane being. So he finally gave up trying and let their

inexhaustible energy and excitement wash over him

in a flood of fur, faces, and emotion.

Some were taller and thinner than Quorly; none

were as heavyset as Norgil. They were divided evenly

between male and female- Everyone mixed freely,

and while several shared obvious bonds, none were

joined in a formal relationship akin to marriage.

Leader of this anarchistic amalgam was an elderly

silver-tinged female named Memaw. She examined

the resurrected human with a sharp eye.

“Well,” she finally declaimed in an elegant tone,

“you are a bit short of fur and long in the leg, but

then, I’m long in years and short of tooth and I get

by.” She grinned up at him, her mouth displaying an

alarming absence of the full complement of otterish

orthodontics. Jon-Tom doubted if it slowed her down.

Watching Memaw, he doubted much of anything

would slow her down-

“You’re welcome to join us.”

“I appreciate your offer, ma’am. Mudge and I.

we…” He broke off, staring past her. Stacked neatly

against the inner wall of one of the lean-tos, dry and

apparently unharmed, were his ramwood staff; his

backpack; and most important of all, his irreplace-

able duar. “You saved our stuff!”

“Naturally, mate,” said Mudge. “Or did you think I

went lookin’ for you first?” Appreciative laughter rose

from the assembled otters.

“No wonder you get along so well with this bunch,”

Jon-Tom shot back, “they even laugh at your execra-

ble jokes.”

Alan Dean Foster


“Wot’d ‘e say?” Knorckle asked Splitch. He was the

biggest and strongest of the band, barely half a foot

shorter than Jon-Tom. Splitch, on the other-hand,

was the picture of petite furred femininity.

“I don’t know. Mudge says he was studying to be a


“Oh,” Knorckle grunted, as though that explained


Mudge stepped in Jon-Tom’s path. “‘Old on a

minim, guv, let’s not practice any singin’ now, wot? We

just made friends ‘ere. Don’t want to go drivin* ’em

off already, do we?”

Memaw wagged a warning Finger under Mudge’s

nose. “Now, you be nice to your human friend, even

if he is a bit slow at times! He’s had a more difficult

time of it than you have, he has, having nearly been

killed by those dreadful Plated Folk.” She turned and

smiled maternally up at Jon-Tom. “Don’t you worry

none, young one. I’ll see that this other youngster

minds his tongue while he is around me.”

“It’s all right, Memaw. I’m used to it. It’s just

Mudge’s manner. Sarcasm’s as natural to him as


“Humph. Sharp teeth I don’t mind, but 1 can’t

stand a sharp tongue. Nevertheless, if you don’t

mind. then 1 will stay out of it.”

“Look, about what you said about us joining your

hunting party, that’s real nice of you. and I like

fishing as much as the next guy, but I’m afraid we

can’t accept.” There were a few moans of disappoint-

ment, none of which came near to matching the

anguished expression that came over Mudge’s face.

“Aw, mate, can’t we at least stay with ’em for a little

while? It’s a pleasant change to be among friends

and safe for a change.” He stepped forward, took

Jon-Tom by the arm, and led him away from the



cluster, making him bend over so he could whisM-r

in his friend’s ear.

“There’s food ‘ere for the askin’, guv. We’re safe

from the Plated Folk, and there’s plenty o’ good

companionship, laughter, and song; and besides”—

he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial murmur—

“the three youngest ones—Quorly, Splitch. and

Sasswise—they’re as hot as that pool you busted the

Mulmun in. I’m tellin’ you, mate, all we ‘ave to do


Jon-Tom rose, stared coldly down at the otter. “I

might have known that your reasons would all derive

from your baser instincts. Mudge. You’re acting on

the advice of your glands instead of your brain.”

“You bet your arse I am, mate, and if you think

you’re gonna drag me away from this crowd o’ willin’

lovelies so we can go parley with some ill-dispositioned

magician in a strange city, you’re sadly off.”

“Maybe they’ll come with us, show us the way.”

Mudge shook his head violently. “Not a chance.

This is a ‘untin’ party, remember? They move all

over the country, only go into the smaller towns to

trade. Never make it into the big cities like Quasequa.”

“Never?” Jon-Tom turned and strolled back to his

milling, chattering saviors. Mudge trailed along be-

hind him, hurrying to catch up and tugging anxiously

at his friend’s sleeve.

“Now, wait a minute, lad, wot be you goin’ to say

now? Just that they’re friendly-seemin’ now don’t

mean you can’t make enemies o’ the lot o’ them with

a misplaced word ‘ere and there. Listen to me,


Jon-Tom ignored him, halted in front of Memaw.

**Your offer is beguiling, but we really -can’t go with

you. You see, we are on the final leg of a vitally

important mission.”

Mudge put both hands over his face and fell

Aian Dean Foster


backward with a groan. “Oh, blimey. ‘E’s goin’ to tell

’em everythin’, ‘e is… the bleedin’ idiot!”

The spellsinger proceeded to do precisely that.

His audience listened raptly until he Finished.

“… And so,” he concluded, “that’s why I’m afraid

we can’t take you up on your offer. We have a job to

do, much as I’d love to exchange it for a few months of

hunting and Fishing.”

The otters immediately fell to arguing and discuss-

ing among themselves. The vehemence of their de-

bate tookJon-Tom a bit aback, but all the ear-pulling

and nose-biting and cursing seemed, remarkably

enough, to eventually produce a consensus free of


Drortch spoke first, fiddling with her necklace as

she did so. It was fashioned of some heavy, silvery

braid which shone in the sun. “Wot can the two of

you do against the rulers o’ Quasequa?’

“Whatever we can. Whatever we must. There may

be no danger at all, no problem to deal with if this

Markus the Ineluctable and I turn out to be on the

same wavelength. If we can communicate with each

other and reach an understanding, then we can do

all the fishing we want.”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” said Frangel slowly.

“Not from wot I’ve ‘eard o’ this bloke. Word is this

Markus ‘as been ‘avin’ taxes raised not only in the

city but in all the outlyin’ districts as well.”

“That would mean the tax on our catch would be

raised.” muttered Wupp angrily.

“Well, we ain’t never paid no taxes to Quasequa

and we ain’t never goin’ tol” declaimed Flutzasar-


“Right.,. yeal., – never… t” The rest of the band

took up the first cry of defiance.

Memaw raised a paw for silence. “Where’d you

hear of all this, Frangel?”


“When we were leavin’ Quasequa the last time we

were in for supplies. Couple o’ blokes on a street

comer were reading the paper aloud.”

Jon-Tom pursed his lips as he stared down over

his nosc^at Mudge. “So they never go into the city, eh?”

The otter offered up a wan smile by way of reply,

hunted for a hole big enough to crawl into.

“What else did you hear?” Memaw prompted the

younger otter.

Frangel licked his lips. “I ‘eard that this Markus is

goin’ to demand assurances o’ allegiance. Not to

Quasequa, mind you, but to him direct.”

“Wot an outragel… Never ‘appen… got a snowball’s

chance in the Greendowns if *e thinks ‘e can force

that on everybody…'”

Memaw turned to Jon-Tom and the cries died

down. “You have still failed to properly answer

Drench’s question, young human. If you are not on

the same “wavelength*—whatever that may be—as

this Markus the Ineluctable, how do you propose to

convince him to stop his activites should he prove

unresponsive to your initial entreaties?”

“Naturally, our response will depend on his. If he

proves stubborn and uncooperative, well, 1 have a

mandate from the great wizard Clothahump, my

instructor, to do whatever I think is in the best

interests of the people of Quasequa. As Mudge has

told you, 1 am something of a spellsinger. The

Plated Folk knew that, which is why they wanted me

so badly.”

“Bugs ain’t got no taste,” Mudge grumbled. He

stood off to one side, looking surly and refusing to

participate in the discussion.

“Assuming your powers are functioning, you truly

believe you can overcome this magician? It is rumored

he is extraordinarily powerful. He defeated the fa-

mous Opiode the Sly.”

Alan Dean Foster


“Like I said,” Jon-Tom told her, with a quiet confi-:

dence he didn’t feel, “we’ll do whatever’s necessary.”

He moved through them to pick up his backpack,

slung it over his shoulders, did the same with the

duar, and gripped the ramwood staff. Then he looked

significantly toward a solitary figure standing away

from the others.


“Wot!” the otter growled, not looking back at him.

“Ifs time we were on our way.”

The otter shook his head sadly. “Ain’t it always?”

He let out a sigh, moved to follow as Jon-Tom started

toward the beach.

Behind them the hunting party congressed intently,

heads sucking together in a circle, looking for all the

world like an undersized rugby scrum.

Frangel stuck his head up first. “‘Ang on there,

‘uman! We’re comin’ with you.”

Jon-Tom paused, turned. “That’s damn decent of

you, and we’d sure like the company; but this isn’t

your fight, and you’re not operating under the kind

of obligation that I am.”

“Screw your obligation!” said Quorly. “We’re not

gonna stand ‘ere and let ourselves be taxed like that.”

“That’s the spirit,” Jon-Tom told her. “No taxation

without representation!”

“And we don’t want none o’ that neither!” Sasswise

said angrily.

Jon-Tom swallowed and let his simile go down in

flames- Quorly sashayed over to him.

“Anyway, you’re not goin* to do anythin’ without

our help, Jonny-Tom.”

“And why not?”

” ‘Cause you ain’t got no boat anymore.”

All that bouncing around must have caused him to

bump his head a few times, he reflected. That was

one minor fact he’d managed to overlook.



“I admit we could use a raft or something. The

Plated Folk made a mess of ours. Could we borrow

one of yours?”

“Don’t be a fool.” She winked at him and joined

(he scattering of her companions.

Jon-Tom watched dizzily as they broke camp, packed,

and prepared to depart. The entire process took

about five minutes. There was only the one craft in

any case, a large, low-gunwaled boat that bobbed at

anchor on the other side of the island. Gear was

stowed neatly below the single deck. Jon-Tom followed

them aboard, already out of breath. And he hadn’t

done anything but watch.

“But why?” he asked Quorly. “Why risk yourselves

to help us?”

“Lots o* reasons,” she told him, “the principal one

bein’ that we’re bored. Even catchin’ fish can get old,

you knows.”

Jon-Tom tried to adopt a serious mien as he stepped

on board. “This isn’t a game. If I can’t get along with

this Markus, it could be-dangerous for all of us.” He

remembered Pandro’s description of the attack by

faceless demons almost certainly sent in pursuit of

him by the magician. “I know he’s capable of using

violence against those he thinks mean him ill.”

‘Tough titty.” The delicate little Splitch spat over

the side. “If ‘e gives you any trouble, we’ll just ‘ave to

show ‘im the error o’ ‘is ways, won’t we? A little

danger’!! add some spice to the visit.”

Jon-Tom could only look on admiringly as they

pushed off from shore. There wasn’t a concerned

expression in the bunch. On the contrary, they acted

and sounded excited, as if they were looking forward

to the coming confrontation.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Save your breath for this Markus the Ineluctable,”

Knorckle told him as he settled himself behind an

Alan Dean Porter


oar. Muscles bulged in his short arms. “From wot

Frangel says, you’ll be needin* it. This magician bloke

sounds like a thoroughly disagreeable person.” Mur-

murs of agreement sounded from his companions.

Jon-Tom searched the center of the boat. There

was no mast and no means for raising one, only the

two sets of oars. He hunted for an unoccupied bench.

“Now what are you about, young human?” Memaw

had taken up a position next to the stem rudder.

“I like to pull my own weight.”

“Kind of you, but I’m afraid there aren’t any

empty places. Each of us knows what to do. So just

make yourself comfortable until we get to Quasequa.”

“All right, but I won’t like it.”

“You don’t have to like it.” She smiled cheerfully

at him. “Now, sit down, stay out of our way, and be-

have yourself.”

“Yes ma’am.” He did as he was told.

Everyone except Splitch, who was lookout, bent to

their oars. Turning neatly under Memaw’s guidance,

the boat began to move south, Jon-Tom sat and

fidgeted for as long as he could stand it before

muttering to the helmsman.

“I don’t want to rock the boat, Memaw, but I can’t

just sit here and let the rest of you do all the work. 1

wasn’t brought up like that.”

“Nonsense. There’s nothing you can do in any

case. There are only eight oars.”

Jon-Tom considered, then said brighdy, “I know.”

He moved his duar into playing position. “I can sing

some rowing songs.”

“Yeah!..-great..-good idea!… let’s ‘ear *un sing.-.l”

the rowers chorused enthusiastically.

“No, no, no!” Mudge rushed to restrain Jon-Tom’s

fingers. “You might magic us back to the ‘ome o’ the

Plated Folk, mate, or even worse,”



“Relax, Mudge. I’m just going to make a little

music, not magic.”

“I’ve ‘card that one afore, I ‘ave.” He took his

argument to his brethren.

“‘E’s^a spellsinger all right. Trouble is, ‘e ‘as this

sort o* scattershot effect that…”

Jon-Tom was drowning out the otter’s pleading,

singing cheerfully with the mass control on the duar

turned halfway up. No way could Mudge be heard

over that volume. The otter finally gave up and

moved as far away from the singer as he could get

without abandoning ship. He squatted down against

the bow and waited. His eyes never left his friend’s

instrument as he waited nervously for catastrophe to


Jon-Tom modified an old Dionne Warwick stan-

dard and started off with a lilting little ditty newly

titled “Do You Know the Way to Quasequa?” then

segued into “By the Time I Get to the Quorumate.”

As the boat continued to slide through the water

without being obliterated, Mudge finally allowed him-

self to relax. Quorly helped him.

The words didn’t rhyme but that didn’t dampen

Jon-Tbm’s delight. Traveling songs were always fun

to sing, and sailing songs even more so. Occasionally

the otters would join in, their high-pitched squeaky

tones gathering in strength as they picked up on the

lyrics. It didn’t seem to matter that no two of them

could harmonize. That blended in nicely with Jon-

Tbm’s erratic tenor, which is to say, not at all. But

what they lacked in talent they made up for in

enthusiasm. Somehow the boat stayed on course.

By the time Jon-Tom wrapped up a final chorus of

“We Were Sailing Along on Moonlight Bay” and

launched into “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” Mudge

was prepared to spend the rest of the cruise tied to

the stem with his head underwater.

Alan Dean Foster


“There’s one consolation for me in all this, mate,”

he told Jon-Tom shakily between verses. .

“What’s that?”

“There ain’t no torture too cruel, no ‘on-or too vile

to contemplate, no death so slow that Markus the

Ineluctable can inflict on me that’d be any worse

than ‘avin’ to endure this terrible tintinnabulation.”

“Why, Mudge”—Jon-Tom let loose with a couple

of fresh riffs—”anyone would think you were some

kind of music hater.”

” ‘Ow could they think that, mate, when there ain’t

no music around for me to ‘ate?”

Quorly traded places with SpUtch and put both

arms around the otter’s neck. “Why, Mudgey-Wudgey,

don’t be such a sourpuss.” She brushed his whiskers

with hers and he was forced to relent.

“Aw, welt,” he allowed, “maybe there is a kind o’

music on this boat.”

Pinching ringers made Jon-Tom jump. He turned

to see Sasswise grinning at him from her bench as

she pushed steadily on her oar. “Quorly was right

about you, Jenny-Tom- You are cute.”

Jon-Tom thought of another song very quickly.


As the days passed and the miles accumulated be-

neath their keel, the character of the land they were

passing through began to undergo a drastic change.

The huge emergents dripping with moss and vines

gave way to rust-colored palms and house-sized bushes

erupting with rainbow-hued flowers. The water grew

clear enough for them to see the sandy bottom fifty

feet below. Even the sky changed as fog and mist

fell behind them. The humidity dropped to a

tolerable level and the light of midday became bearable.

They began to encounter communities constructed

on stilts, and clusters of small fishing boats. The

Otters waved at the inhabitants and they waved back.

The dark cloud that hung over this beautiful land

was thus far only metaphorical. Everywhere Jon-

Toiri looked he saw signs of abundance and cheerful,

busy people. There were even a few human beings.

Gradually, much larger islands replaced the smaller

outlying ones. Buildings of reed and palm gave way

to more permanent structures of wood and stone.

Smoke curled from the chimneys of structures that

climbed steep cliffs, while the homes of avians clung

precariously to the topmost crags.


Alan Dean Foster


Clothahump had been vindicated. This was a

magnificent, prosperous land. He told Mudge so.

“Oi, ‘e was right about this much,” the otter

reluctantly conceded. “All ‘is wizardship did was ne-

glect to tell us about that little stretch o’ filth and

slime we ‘ad to slog through to get ‘ere- A triflin’

oversight, wot?”

Jon-Tbm stared over the bow. “I just wish I knew

more about this Markus.”

“Still think ‘e’s come over from your world, mate?”

The expression on the spellsinger’s face reflected

his uncertainty. “I don’t know what to think anymore,

Mudge. I’m not as certain as I once was. I’d feel

better about it if we could hear someone say some-

thing nice about him.” He took a deep breath. “Well,

we’ll know all about him soon enough.”

Around him the otters were still singing, booming

out all the songs he’d taught them during the past

days with a vocal ferocity that was beginning to wear

even on their instructor. His fingers were too tired

for him to accompany them on the duar anymore,

but that didn’t seem to matter.

“Don’t they ever slow up? Don’t they realize how

serious this business could turn out to be?”

“They know ’tis serious, mate, and they’re actin’ as

serious about it as they can be. See, one otter can be

serious. Two otters can’t look at one another without

crackin’ up. Get three or more o* us together in one

place for more than two minutes and you’ve got a

nonstop party. Don’t worry about ’em, guv. They’re

‘ell in a fight.”

“I can believe that. I’ve seen you fight.”

“This lot ain’t no different.”

*Tt is nice to have allies. Surely they’ll quiet down

when we reach Quasequa. We don’t want to make a

spectacle of ourselves when we pull into town.”

“Don’t count on getdn’ any quiet or decorum out




of this lot. And remember, you’re the one who

talked ’em into this.”

**I didn’t talk them into it.” Jen-Tom sounded

defensive even to himself. “They volunteered”

“Sorry, mate. You don’t get off that easy.”

“It’s just that if they don’t quiet down some, we’ll

attract a lot of attention. I don’t want this Markus to

know I’m around until I’m ready to meet with him.”

**0h, I wouldn’t worry too much about that, guv.

From wot sweet Quorly’s been tellin’ me, Quasequa’s

a mighty big place, and plenty rowdy when ’tis on its

good behavior. So we’re likely to blend right in.’*

“You don’t care what happens anyway, do you,

, Mudge? Not so long as there are a couple of compU-

^ ant ladies around.”

^ “Now don’t go gettin’ on me case because o* that.

mate. Just because you ‘ave this peculiar puritanical

. streak in you that keeps you from enjoyin’ the atten-

‘tion o’ others and because you ain’t ‘ad much luck

‘with your favorite red’ead.”

* “Talea’s just taking her time before making a

commitment,” Jon-Tom replied frostily.

– “Lad, lad, she’s a free spirit, that one. Maybe she’ll

come back to you and maybe she won’t. You might

know about spellsingin’, but I knows about females.

That’s a special kind o’ knowledge all its own.”

“You know how’ to talk, anyway.” He lapsed into

silence for a while, found himself watching Memaw

steer the boat, her paws steady on the rudder as she

led her friends in the umpteenth rendition of “Anchors


“As for this mob, I don’t guess I could get rid of

them now even if I wanted to.”

“Not bloody likely,” Mudge agreed. “1 keep tellin’

you to quit worryin’ about ’em. Remember, they

didn’t ^ave no trouble stealin’ you away from the

Plated Folk.”

Alan Dean Foster


“I know, I know. It’s just that I’d feel really guiky if

any of them got hurt on my behalf.”

“This ain’t no bunch o’ cubs on this ship,” Mudge

said somberly. “They know wot they’re gettin’ into.”

They were interrupted by Splitch’s shout from the

front of the boat. “Quasequal” Jon-Tom and Mudge

rushed toward the bow as the rest of the otters

pulled harder.

If Clothahump had underestimated the travails of

their journey, he’d also underestimated the beauty of

their destination. Three of the Five main islands that

composed the city proper were visible dead ahead.

Multi-storied buildings built of quarried white lime-

stone climbed the sides of each island’s central peak.

Palm trees rustled in the gentle wind, and here and

there a copper-clad roof showed bright bronze in the


They were traveling among heavy traffic now. Most

of the boats were smaller than theirs, a few with sails

bulked larger. The Isle Drelft lay off to port, Isle

Sofanza to starboard, and the central island called

Quase where the Quorumate Complex was located

loomed straight ahead. Massive stone causeways con-

nected all three islands, their multiple arches high

enough for the majority of boat traffic to pass freely

underneath. Carved shells and animal faces decorat-

ed each.

Crowds filled the causeways, the constant hum of

their conversation reaching out across the water.

The babble bespoke a vibrant community, full of life

and commerce. Quasequa certainly didn’t strike Jon-

Tom as a city about to fall under the domination of

some alien tyrant. As yet, though, the citizens were

not at war with their own government. As yet. If

luck, skill, and charm were with him, the face of this

exquisite metropolis would remain always as it was

this morning.



Flowers. He’d never seen so many Howers in one

place. There were blossoms floating past on the

water thai were the size of his hand, shiny lavender

striped with yellow. He lifted one from the surface

and inhaled deeply of its lingering fragrance: pure


Smaller boats hove alongside. They were populat-

ed by the familiar extraordinary assortment of intelli-

gent species, all hawking handicrafts, dried fish,

fresh fruits and vegetables, drinks chilled by ice

spells, erotic art, and ship’s supplies. Memaw steered

through them, ignoring the familiar pleas of the

floating hawkers.

Flowers grew from the tops of trees, from the

sides of buildings, out of neat green hedgerows that

lined the streets, and even out on the open lake.

Rubbery-looking Ulylike pads slid past, their centers

startling with clusters of tiny blue blossoms no bigger

than Jon-Tom’s little Fingernail. Still-smaller blos-

soms hung from silk balloons that floated through

the warm air. When the breeze stilled they would

settle to the water, only to rise again on the next puff

of wind. They made the sky look as if it were full of

flying rubies.

Memaw leaned on the rudder, and the boat turned

slightly to port, angling for the low quays that lined

the shore of Isle Quase.

“There is an inn we frequent during our visits

here,” she told him. “A good place to eat and rest

while digesting the newest rumors and juiciest gossip.”

“Everything seems so normal,” he told her. “The

people look content. Maybe this Markus and I will

get along after all.”

“Sometimes healthy fur can conceal rotting flesh.

We shall see. Regardless, it will be nice to sleep in a

real bed again” She adjusted their course minutely

and gestured at a two-story-tall rock ediFice that lay

Alaa Dean Foster


dead ahead. It was built right down to the edge of

the water.

“The chap who runs this place, Cherjal, is privy to

just about everything that happens in Quasequa. He

should be able to tell us whether there will be danger-

ous work awaiting you here or whether you can relax

and enjoy the sights of the city.”

As they drew near, the reason for the inn’s loca-

tion became clear. With its siting right on the lake, it

catered freely to water- and land-dwellers alike. They

tied up to an empty slip, and Jon-Tom’s newfound

allies ushered him inside.

The single large eating and drinking room had a

low-domed ceiling and was crammed with chattering

muskrats, beavers, nutrias, and capybaras in addition

to unfamiliar otters. Water entered via an opening to

the lake, permitting the easy entry of an occasional

freshwater porpoise.

Thunder boomed outside. They’d arrived just ahead

of a tropical thunderstorm. Through the openings

to the lake, Jen-Tom could see the heavy drops

churning the smooth surface and was glad they’d

pulled in when they had. Inside the inn, all was snug

and dry.

Memaw left them seated at several tables, returned

a few moments later with the proprietor, Jen-Torn

didn’t rise to greet him. The ceiling, lined with shiny

sea-green tile, was too low.

Cheijal was a large koala- He wore an apron, vest,

the ubiquitous short pants, and a bright blue scarf

around his forehead. He let out a tired groan as he

plopped down in an empty chair and regarded his

new guests.

Jon-Tom sipped at his sweet dder and waited

patiently while Cherjal exchanged pleasantries with

the rest of the otters. The floor was full of drains.

and the dampness of the room reflected the inn’s



largely riparian clientele. There was no sign of mold

or mildew, however, and he suspected the place was

scrubbed clean every night. Still, he couldn’t escape

the feeling that he was sitting inside an enormous


“So how go zee feeshing, Memaw?”

She shrugged and set down the dope stick she’d

been puffing on. Jon-Tom had already taken one

whiff of the pungent smoke and set temptation aside.

He needed all his wits about him now, and half that

stick would’ve laid him flat.

“Not bad. Our trip turned out to be full of interest-

ing digressions, however, hence our early return. We

happened upon this tall human chap and his friend

and helped them out of a difficult spot. This is


, “Hi” He extended a hand, was surprised by the

koala’s powerful grip.

“His friend Mudge is around somewhere. Well, no

matter.” She leaned across the table. “What does

matter is something we stumbled across where the

Lakes meet the Wrounipai: a complete colony of

water-dwelling Plated Folk.”

“Plated Folks?” Cherjal’s eyes widened. “How shock-

ing a discoveree thees be! How reemarkable. How


“Yeah, it sucks,” Frangel agreed.

“Indeed, indeed.” Cherjal considered. “Sometheeng

must be done about thees. These Plated Theengs

cannot be allowed to colonize our waters. An expee-

deetion must be mounted to wipe theem away.”

“There is no need to panic, my good friend.” Memaw

crossed silver-furred arms. “The colony is not that

big, and we left them with sufficient to think about to

keep them from causing trouble for a while.” Mut-

ters of agreement sounded from the rest of the

band, except for Mudge. He was too busy stuffing

Atan Deu Foatcr


himself with freshly broiled fish to care much about

the conversation.

“So you come back to mee early. What can I do for

my favorite lady, heh?”

‘Always the flatterer, Cherjal.” She smiled across

the table at him.

It was raining harder than ever now. Jon-Tom

could hear the drops drumming on the roof. The

warmth from so many furry bodies and the thick

scent of their mixed musk was making him sleepy. It

would be so nice just to find a warm bed and lie

down and sleep for about two days.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t do that. Not just yet.

“We need to know what this new advisor to the

Quorum is like, what his plans are, and what he’s

been up to,” he asked Cherjal.

“So. You weesh about Markus the Ineluctable

information, heh?” Right away the koala lost some of

his good humor. “I have plenty I can tell you, yes,

and not much of eet much nice.

“Nobodies took much notice of eet when he defeated

Opiode the Sly. The cheef advisor spends hees time

mostly advising the Quorum. Very leetle of what hee

do treeckles down to us ordinary ceeteezens. Then

thee rumors up-started. Steel nobodies pays much

attention. As long as it don’t much affect their lives,

thee people preety much ignore what thee govern-

ment gets up to.” Cherjal lowered his voice and took

a moment to check the inhabitants of the tables

nearby before continuing.

“They say thees Markus setting up hees own net-

work of spies. Eenformers in Quasequa, can you

imagine?” He shook his head in disbelief at his own

revelation. “Theen last week eet finally happening.

At first nobody believe it. Thee shock steel not

settled een, I theenk. That’s why everything look so

normal around town.”



“Believe wot?” Sasswise asked him.

“What thees new weezard he done. He dissolve

thee Quorum. Temporarily, hee say, unteel a new

one can be chosen. Meanwhile he running Quasequa

all by Heemself.”

A new voice interrupted loudly. “I knew it!”

All eyes turned. “You knew what, Mudge?” jon-

Tom asked.

“I knew we should’ve stayed *ome.”

“Calm down,” He looked nervously over the otter’s

head, but none of the other patrons appeared in the

least bit interested in the conversation taking place at

the far side of the room- Of course, a good informer

wouldn’t reveal his interest. “We’re still not sure who’s

done what,” he told the otter softly.

“No, eet ees certain not yet who is completely

altogether responseeble,” Cherjal admitted. “But thee

rumors they say also that thees Markus has put all

the members of the Quorum who don’t support

heem into the dungeons beneath the Quorumate.

Seence nobodies can get een to see heem or them,

thees can’t be verified, and the members who come

and go as they please, like Kindore and Vazvek,

won’t say what they must know.”

“When’s all this supposed to have happened?”

**0nly a few days ago.” Cherjal rubbed his flat

black nose, sniffed. “Nobody really knows nothing.

When asked, word come back that thee members of

thee Quorum are engaged in long and deeficult

deescusions about the future of the city. But that

what they always say when they want to have private

party and geet smashed.”

“So the government of Quasequa is either over-

thrown or drunk,” Jon-Tom decided-

Cherjal nodded. “About thee size of eet that ees.

Those of us who fear thee first worry that Markus

may solidify his power on the Quorum with thee

Alan Dean Foster


help of those who support heem until eel ees

unbreakable becoming.” He stared up at Jon-Tbm.

“You gots strong eenterest in thees even though you

not coming From Quasequa, man. Why?”

“I think it’s also rumored that Markus claims to

come from another world.” Cherjal nodded. “I think

he may come from mine. If I can meet with him, I

may be able to straighten a lot of things out.”

Cherjal glanced at Memaw. “Is true? He from

another world?”

“Who’d lie about a thing like that?”

“Maybe a magician,” Cherjal suggested.

“That’s exactly why I need to talk to him,” Jon-

Tom said. A paw came down on his shoulder.

” ‘Ere now, mate,” Mudge mumbled, “if this ‘ere

bloke’s the type to go around deposin’ rightful

governments, it don’t sound to me like ‘e’s the kind

who’d be ready and willin’ to ‘elp you find your way


“I admit it doesn’t sound promising, but we don’t

know anything for certain yet and we won’t until I

meet this Markus. Like I said before, if he is doing

these things, he may be doing so to protect himself

because he’s in a strange place and he’s afraid for his


“So hee protect heemself by taking control of

everybody else?” Cherjal made a disgusted sound.

“Doesn’t matter no ways. No ways you can meet

heem. Hee sees nobodies. Lots of people have tried

to see heem. Nobody do it, and those who try too

hard disappearing”

“Isn’t there an appointments secretary for the

Quorum, or something?”

“For thee Quorum, there is. For Markus is nothings.

Only Quorum members themselves have seen heem.

Appointments secretary will tell you to lost be getting.”

“I see.” Jon-Tom considered for a long moment



before saying, “Then we’ll ^ust have to make our own

appointment. Where is Markus staying?”

“Een a private apartment in the Quorumate

Complex. So the rumors saying.”

Jon-Tom leaned as close to the koala as he could.

“You wouldn’t happen to know of a service entrance

that’s lightly guarded, would you?”

Mudge broke out in a broad grin. “Bugger me,

mate, can it be that you’re Finally comin’ ’round to

seein’ things the way the world is instead of’ow you’d

like ’em to be?”

Jon-Tom replied primly. “I am always praematic.


“Oi, is that wot you calls it? I always thought it

were called breakin’ and enterin’.”

“We’re not going to break anything,” Jon-Tom

snapped, leaving the second half of Mudge’s defini-

tion uncommented upon,

“There are several serveece entrances,” Cherjal

informed them, “but all are being guarded.”

“Who does the guarding?”

“Eet vary from place to place.”

Quorly spoke for the first time, grinning over at

Jon-Tom. “Don’t you worry none about the guards,

tuv. You just leave that little problem to Sasswise,

Splitch, and meself.”

“I don’t know—” he began uncertainly, but she cut

him off.

“We’ll handle things… so to speak.” Twin giggles

came from the table nearby.

“I wouldn’t ask anything like that of you if this

wasn’t really important, Quorly, I wouldn’t want you

to do anything that’s…” Mudge leaned over, his

nose inches from Jon-Tom’s.

“Now, you shut up, mate,” he murmured, “or

you’re goin’ to make the ladies feel bad. They’re

TOlunteerin’ for this little caper and they damn well

Alan Dean Footer


know wot they’re about. Might even ‘ave themselves a

good time doin’ it.”

“We always ‘aves ourselves a good time doin’ it,”

Sasswise commented from the neighboring table.

Not for the First time since he’d fallen in with this

remarkable gaggle of otters, Jon-Tom blushed.

“It could be very dangerous.”

“Now, didn’t you already say that?” Quoriy sounded

exasperated. “That were ‘alf the point in our comin’


“That is right, dear.” Memaw looked over at Jon-

Tom. “We shall help you gain entrance to the

Quorumate so you may meet with Markus the In-


“Ineluctable,” Jon-Tom corrected her. “But why?”

“We already told you, I believe. We do not care for

this new wizard’s politics. We stand ready to fight

anything that infringes on our freedom, including

each other. Can’t just allow this sort of thing to slide


“Not bloody likely!” snorted Knorckle.

“Damn right on!” Norgil agreed.

“Then it is settled,” she finished, smiling warmly at


“We thank you all from the bottom of our hearts.

Don’t we, Mudge? Mudge?”

There were more giggles from the other table,

indicating that at the moment, Mudge was more

interested in getting to the heart of somebody’s



A slivered moon helped to conceal their approach as

they paddled toward the Quorumate. The complex

was constructed on a narrow, rocky peninsula chat

extended like a crooked finger out into the lake.

This made it nigh impossible to approach without

being seen, hence the decision to sneak up on it via

the water.

It was a much more impressive edifice than Jon-

Tom had imagined, rising some six stories above the

lake. Numerous towers and walls had been enlarged

over the years until the original buildings had merged

in a single rambling structure that covered nearly all

of the Quorumate grounds. Flying buttresses braced

several towers from the outside. These were capped

by flagpoles from which fluttered pennants signify-

ing the main islands which composed the city,

The boat they’d borrowed from Cherjal drifted

toward the single pier. Several other small craft were

already anchored there, bobbing like metronomes in

the gentle swell.

Quoriy, Sasswise, and Splitch adjusted their feath

ered hats as they slipped out of the boat. All three

were dressed to kill, so to speak. Making no attempt

to hide their presence, they staggered straight to-


Alan Dean Foster


ward the guard station, giving a perfect imitation of

three drunken, carousing ladies of the evening out

for a good time. Meanwhile Jon-Tom and the others

lay low in the boat and waited.

Half the night seemed to go by. Jon-Tom found

himself staring at the moon. It looked like the same

moon he used to watch set over the Pacific. There

was the same pattern of mares and mountain chains.

How could that be in this world, so different in so

many other ways from his own? There was so much

he still didn’t understand.

The sounds of running feet interrupted his reverie.

Hands on ramwood staff, he tensed, as did his


But the face that peered down at them, hat askew

over one eye, was a familiar one.

“Come on then!” Quorly whispered urgently at


They piled out of the boat and ran up the pier.

Jon-Tom was something of a runner, but already he

saw he was going to have a hard time keeping up

with this bunch.

Quorly led them up a succession of steep stone

steps until they reached a circular patio that overlooked

the pier. Lying side by side were an unconscious wolf

and weasel. Their armor was stacked haphazardly

off to one side. Sasswise and Splitch stood over them,

daintily readjusting their attire.

Sasswise was swinging a weapon in circles. It looked

something like a cast-iron nunchaku. She gestured

with her free paw at the weasel-

“Belongs to ‘im, this does. After we got acquainted

I asked *im if I might ‘ave a look at it. He was afraid

I might ‘urt me delicate self with it, but I promised

‘im I’d be careful.” She put a finger to her lips and

assumed an innocent look. ” ‘Pears I wasn’t careful

enough. Wot a shame.”



“Right then, let’s hop to rt.” Memaw directed Knorckle,

Drortch, and Wupp as they bound the two guards.

They snored on peacefulty, dreaming perhaps of

happier moments- They were going to be more than

a little -upset when they came to and realized what

had been done to them.

“We can’t just leave them here.” Jon-Tom peered

carefully through the open doorway into the building.

‘Another patrol might come along and find them.”

“Right,” said the petite Splitch in her little-girl-cub

voice. “Let’s dump *em in the lake.”

“No, no, I want to try and avoid any unnecessary


“Told you ‘e was weird,” Mudge whispered to


“We can put them in the boat,” Memaw suggested.

Jon-Tom waited anxiously while half the otters

proceeded to dispose of the guards. The hallway

which led invitingly inward remained empty.

Several minutes passed. He was startled to see

their boat moving slowly away from the pier, its sail

raised. Sasswise gave him an explanation when she

rejoined the others.

“We compromised, Jonny-Tom. Nobody’11 find *em

now. The wind’ll carry ’em out into the lake proper.”

“What happens if they run into another boat?

Fishermen or something?”

“Won’t make no bit o’ difference,” Splitch assured

him. “1 mean, if you were told to guard an important

place and somebody found you tied up and sailin’

away from that place with your pants missin’, would

you be in a ‘urry to report it to your superiors?”

“I guess not.” He turned his attention inward.

“Let’s find this Markus.” He called down the hall,

where Memaw had stationed herself behind a table.

•All clear?”

She nodded and waved. They crowded in, comment-

Alan Dean Foster


ing on the elegant furnishings and marble Hoor. The

ceiling was impressively high, which meant thatJon-

Tbm couid move without having to walk hunched

over. His oft-bruised head was grateful ^for the


They trotted down the long hall and turned left.

Cherjal had provided them with what was generally

known of the Quommate’s floor plan, but no one

was certain of the location of the residential rooms

where Markus was likely to have his headquarters.

They’d have to find that themselves.

Everything went smoothly until Sasswise leaped

into the air grabbing at her backside. When she

came down she started haranguing the innocent Norgil.

“Will you watch wot you’re doin’ with that damn


“Now, look ‘ere, m’lady, I’m just keepin’ it ‘andy in

case we’re attacked… if you don’t mind.” Norgil ges-

tured with the stubby but sharp offender. “Why

don’t you give a body a little room to move about?’*

“Move about? I’ll give you room to move about,

you fat slob. I’ll move you…!”

“Quiet!” Memaw said sharply. “Be quiet, you twol”

Already too late, Jon-Tom saw despairingly. A pair

of halberd-wielding foxes had crossed their path a

safe distance down the corridor. The noise brought

them back to investigate. Now they were staring

straight at the tightly packed clutch of invaders.

“You there, where did you come from?” one

demanded to know.

“Cur’s cockles!” Memaw muttered. She glanced

right, then left, and led them up a side corridor. Not

knowing what else to do, Jon-Tom followed. Shouts

and yells rang out behind them.

“So much for the element o* surprise,” groused



“It’ll be all right,” Quoriy assured him. “You’ll see.

We’ll lose that pair of fools quick enough.”

Mudge skidded to a stop. “Righty-ho, but wot

about this new lot o* fools?”

A whole platoon of soldiers had appeared in the

hall directly ahead and were now charging toward

them. The platoon was an interesting mix of species,

varying in size from armed rats and mice to two

great cats and one ape.

“Listen,” Jon-Tom said innocently, “can’t we talk

about this?” The ape stabbed at him and he jumped

aside, bringing down his staff on the other’s spear.

Instead of listening to reason, the ape reversed his

weapon and tried to shove the butt end through

Jon-Tom’s teeth.

He ducked and the blow passed over his head. A

swipe with the ramwood took the ape’s legs out from

under him. The sound of fighting was deafening in

the narrow corridor. The otters found themselves at

a disadvantage in such confines, where they couldn’t

make use of their quickness. But the guards’ rein-

forcements couldn’t get at their quarry and kept

bunching up against each other in the corridors.

Superior numbers couldn’t be brought to bear against

the invaders, but neither could they escape.

Jen-Tom saw Mudge cut a tendon in a vizcacha’s

leg, saw blood spun, and watched as the stripe-faced

soldier went down, too stunned to scream. Then

something whacked him on the back of his neck and

he staggered. He whirled, hunting for his assailant,

and saw nothing but stars before his eyes.

The stars grew brighter as he was hit again. He

blinked and shook his head. As he did so he leaned

slightly backward, and saw his attacker. An armored

possum hung by its tail from one of the rafters. Iron

weights were strapped to its waist and it was taking

its time picking out targets among the otters below.

Alaa Dean Foster


Nobody could reach him and Mudge was too busy

defending himself with his sword to unlimber his


The possum wasn’t used to fighting someone as

tall as a human, however. Jon-Tom tried to knock

the dangling fighter loose with his ramwood staff but

couldn’t quite reach him. For its part, the possum

decided to stop playing around. The next iron ball it

selected was lined with short, sharp spikes. It strug-

gled to draw a bead on Jon-Tom as he bobbed and

dodged below.

Jon-Tom thumbed the concealed switch set in the

staff, and the ramwood lengthened by six inches of

sharp steel. A sudden jab pierced the possum’s throat.

It looked very surprised, hung for a moment longer

from the ceiling, and then dropped like a stone.

The otters fought well, but no matter how many

they cut down, there were always more soldiers to

take the places of the fallen. By now the whole

complex must be alerted, Jon-Tom thought grimly.

Still, it was Memaw who finally called a halt to the

fighting when she saw the twisted form of poor

Norgil lying limp against the marble. The otter had

taken half a dozen sword thrusts and his life was

leaking out on the floor. Already blood made the

footing treacherous. That would take away the otters’

one advantage: their quickness.

So Memaw put up her sword and said, “Enough.

We surrender.”

“Surrender? Wot’s that mean, surrender?” said

Quorly, panting hard. Her fine clothing had been

shredded by sword cuts but otherwise she appeared


“No, Memaw’s right, she is.” Knorckle tossed his

sword aside. “Better to gather strength and wits in

jail than to perish here.”

The guards moved among them, collecting knives



and scimitars and searching briskly for any concealed

weapons. Jon-Tom prayed they might leave him his

duar, but they confiscated it also, along with his


When this was done, a massively muscled jaguar

shoved his way to the fore. His leather armor was

streaked with sword cuts.

“Explain this outrageous intrusion,” he growled.

~ Jen-Torn stepped forward and growled right back

at him. “Outrageous is the word for it. Here we

arrive on time for our appointment and instead of

receiving a courteous greeting, we are brutally attacked.

What kind of troops do you station in here, anyways?

. Cutthroats and murderers!”

The jaguar’s eyes narrowed and he stroked his

-„ chin. “An appointment, you say. With whom?”

“Markus the Ineluctable,” Jon-Tom told him

defiantly. “And is he going to be pissed when he

/ clears how we’ve been treated.”

“Markus, you say?” The officer pushed his helmet

back off his ears. He looked tired. “Next I expect

you’re going to tell me that this is all a misunder-

standing and that it’ll easily be straightened out as

soon as I take you to the advisor?”

“~ “Of course.” Jen-Torn replied easily.

The jaguar seemed to consider. “The master is

sleeping and would not wish to be disturbed. This

casts something of a shadow over your story, tall

man. It may be that the appointment you seek will be

“‘ with the Chamber of Official Torments… but that is

not for rne to decide. The Great Markus will do

;. that”

“Fine with us. If you’ll just take us to him, I

imagine he forgot all about our visit tonight. He’ll

straighten this out fast.” Jon-Tom glared at the sol-

^ diers bunched together behind the officer. “When

^ he learns what’s happened, heads will roll.”

Aim Dean Foster


“I prefer to bounce them myself,” said’the jaguar

evenly. “As a point of interest, some bounce nicely

for a while, while others just go smash. I wonder

which yours would do.” ‘

Jen-Torn went slightly weak in the knees, but didn’t

let k show. “Why not ask Markus?”

“Why not, indeed?” replied the officer surprisingly.

“As I said, only he will know the truth of your words.

If you’ll be so kind as to follow me?” He gestured

with a paw.

“That’s more like it.” Jon-Tom strode confidently

past the jaguar, continuing to glare at the guards.

They descended several levels until the air began

to grow thick and moist. They were below lake level,

and moisture seeped relentlessly through ancient


“Markus the Ineluctable lives down here?” he asked

their guide.

“No,” rumbled the jaguar. “As I told you, he sleeps

and would not wish to be disturbed. I will notify him

of your arrival. As he’s expecting you, I’m sure he’ll

be right down. Meanwhile, I thought you would

enjoy explaining yourselves to the leading members

of our government, who are at this moment awaiting

your presence in their new conference chamber.”

“We’ve heard that some members of the Quorum

weren’t getting along too well with their new advisor.”

“Is that so? A vicious, unfounded rumor. So much

gossip in the city marketplaces these days. You really

shouldn’t pay attention to such idle chatter. Ah, the

Quorum doorman. You there!” he roared at a doz-

ing javelina. “Visitors for the Quorum!”

Tusks flashing in the dim torchlight, the javelina

roused himself and led them forward. Jon-Tom balked

at the sight of the iron grille, but there was nothing

to be done about it now. They were herded toward

the open cell.



“There you go. Enjoy your conference,” the officer

said smoothly as the cursing, complaining otters were

shoved through the opening. The javelina locked it

from the outside.

Jon-Tom glared through the bars. “You’re a real

smart-ass, aren’t you, fuzz-brain?”

“My, my, such language from those who are friends

of the Great Markus,” the jaguar said mockingly. “I

will inform him of your arrival. Meanwhile, do make

yourselves comfortable. I must see to the prepara-

tions for your evening meal. Swill is served in a

couple of hours.” He turned and stalked off toward

the stairway, laughing uproariously at his subtle wit.

His soldiers clustered tightly around him.

Turning, the otters found themselves sharing the

cell with half a dozen surprised and rudely awakened

elders. Here were those members of the Quorum

who’d refused to countenance Markus’s bid for

power… and one other. The robed salamander

stepped forward and introduced himself.

“I greet you, fellow sufferers. I am Opiode the Sly,

former chief advisor in matters arcane and mystic to

the legitimate Quorum of Quasequa and now chief

advisor in those same arts to the deposed Quorum of


Jon-Tom wasn’t ready for conversation with Opiode

or anyone else. Failing to Find an empty comer, he

sat down in the center of the floor.

“My fault, dragging all of you into this. I should’ve

come by myself.”

“Let’s not ‘ave none o’ that, Jonny-Tom,” said


“Right.” Drortch put a consoling paw on his shoul-

der. “You didn’t ‘ave no choice in the matter. You

couldn’t ‘ave made us stay behind if you’d tried.”

“Right… that’s so… better believe it…” agreed a

chorus of otterish voices.

Alan Dean Porter


“‘Ow come nobody ever asks me wot I wants to

do?” Mudge found a section of empty floor to sulk


Memaw laid a maternal paw on Jon-Tom’s head.

“Norgil’s time had come, that’s all, my friend. Per-

haps time for all of us. We have no regrets.”

“But 1 do, damn it! You shouldn’t be here with


“Damn right, mate,” snapped Mudge. Memaw

wagged a warning Finger in his direction.

“Now, Mudge -..”

“Don’t ‘Mudge’ me, water-elder,” the otter snapped

back. “I’ve earned the right to ‘ave me say, I ‘ave.

You’ve only ‘ad to deal with this spellsingin’ shit’ead

for a few days. Me, I’ve ‘ad to put up with ‘is sorceral

muddlin’s for months. All I want is to live an ordi-

nary life. An ordinary life, mind. And ‘e keeps

yankin’ me off to join ‘im on ‘is bloody bloomin’

bleedin’ inexplicable quests and wotever. Well, I’m

sick of it.” He spat the words in Jon-Tom’s direction.

“You ‘ear me, mate? Sick of it!”

Quorly stared at him in disbelief. “Mudge! I’m

surprised at you.”

” ‘Ell, luv, I’m surprised at me, too. Surprised I’m

‘ere, but not surprised at ‘ow this ‘as turned out.

Twas only a matter o’ time, it were. That senile old

turtle went and spun the wheel o* fate one time too

many, and now the odds ‘ave finally caught up with

us. Only thing that’s surprised me is that I’ve sur-

vived ‘is rotten company as long as I ‘ave.” He turned

bis back on them all.

“Turtle?” The elderly salamander wiped at his face.

“Can it be that you are the help the great Clothahump

has sent to us?’^

“Not us,” Memaw corrected him. “We are son of

along for the swim.” She indicated jon-Tom. “You

need to talk to the young gentleman.”



Opiode turned an amphibious eye on the uncom-

fortable Jon-Tom while one’of the deposed Quorum

members voiced the thought that was in all their


“Just him? Him, and the noisy otter? They’re our

salvation? They are the strength Clothahump sends

to us?”

“I fear it may be so.” Opiode hesitated as he spoke

to Jon-Tom. “Unless you and the otter are simply the

advance scouts. That’s it, isn’t it? Clothahump and

his mystic army are encamped not far away, awaiting

your report, aren’t they?”

Jon-Tom sighed as he turned to face the advisor.

“Sorry. I’m afraid we’re it. Me, Mudge, and our

recently acquired friends. We’re your help, and we

haven’t done a very good job of it so far. My plan

was for us to slip in here quiet-like so that I could

have a face-to-face meeting with Markus before any-

one got excited. We didn’t quite manage it”

“Now, there’s a snappy news bulletin,” Mudge

muttered from his corner.

‘An interesting stratagem,” Opiode murmured, “but

what good would it have done had you succeeded?

You would still have ended up down here with the

rest of us who oppose his bid for absolute power.”

Jon-Tom tried to summon up some of his battered

confidence. “Not necessarily. If he didn’t listen to

reason, I was prepared to fight him. I’m a spellsinger,

and a pretty good one.”

Opiode slumped. “A spellsinger? Is that all?”

“Hey, now, wait a minute. I’ve accomplished some

pretty impressive things with my spellsinging”

“You do not understand. I do not mean to impugn

your modest talents. But you must know that I am a

wizard of no small stature, yet I was unable to

counter the magic of this Markus. It is as unpredict-

able and peculiar as it is effective. No mere spellsinger,

Aim Deaa Porter


however voluble, can hope to deal with that.” The

salamander strained to see behind Jon-Tom.

“Besides which, you have no instrument to accom-

pany you.”

“They confiscated it along with our weapons and


“It does not matter,” said Newmadeen sadly. “It’s

obvious this one wouldn’t stand a chance against

Markus anyway.”

“I’d hoped to find a little more support here,”

Jon-Tom told them. He was starting to get a little

peeved by all the criticism. “None of you have any

idea of my capabilities. You don’t know what I can


“Perhaps.” The elderly squirrel who spoke was

clad in rags. The bandage around his forehead indi-

cated he hadn’t accepted his deposition and subse-

quent incarceration gracefully. Several pieces of his

tail were missing.

“But we do know what you can’t do, and that’s get

in to see Markus. No one sees him anymore except

his closest associates—Kindore and Asmouelie and

the other traitors- And that dim-witted mountain of

a bodyguard of his, Prugg.”

“I have to see him. We have to meet. It’s the only

way to resolve things.”

“Things will be resolved soon enough, as soon as

he has consolidated his power,” said the squirrel,

whose name was Selryndi. “Markus will resolve his

embarrassments by having them skewered, weighted,

and dumped in a deep part of the lakes.” He looked

bitter. “We are at fault. We ought never to have

allowed him to compete for the post of advisor.”

“It was the law,” said Opiode.

“Aye, but you warned us against him afterward

and we didn’t listen.”

“Now is not the time for recriminations or for the



. ^

laying of blame. We must try to get word to the

population. A general uprising is our only hope. Or

we might try to bribe one of those close to him to

attempt an assassination.”

“That will not be easy and could hasten our demise,”

said old Trendavi, “considering how carefully he

guards himself.”

“Nevertheless, we must try. In matters both magi-

cal and political he grows stronger by the day. We

dare not waste a moment in trying to unseat him. I

do not intend to end up as fish food. If only

Clothahump had seen fit to send us some real help.”

“All right, mates.” Mudge climbed to his feet and

sauntered over. “That’s just about enough. I admit

we ‘aven’t made much of an impression on this

Markus or anyone else in your bloomin’ community,

and we did kind o’ botch our intended nocturnal

visit to this Markus’s bedchamber, but don’t blame

your problems on Jon-Tom ‘ere. We were doin’ a bit

o* all right until somebody put a sword accidental-

like in the wrong place and tempers got out o’ ‘and

for a minim. Jon-Tom’s done the best he could for

you sorry lot. We didn’t get you into this mess, you


“‘Ere we are, come down *ere out o’ the goodness

o’ our “carts”—Jon-Tom gaped at the blatant false-

hood but said nothing—”to try and ‘elp you folks

out o’ a tight spot, and all you can do is moan and

bawl about wot you didn’t get. Maybe we ain’t done

so good so far but from wot I sees we ain’t done any

worse than you ‘ave. So let’s call a halt to the mutual

name-callin’ and see if we can’t work together to

figure out a ways to keep our skins intact, wot?”

It was silent in the cell until Jon-Tom said softly,

“Thank you, Mudge.”

The otter spun on him. “Shut your bleedin’ cake-

Alan Dean Foeter


*ole and start thinkin’ of a ways out, you bloody in-

terferin* twit.” He stalked over to the bars in a huff.

“Charmin* friend you got there,” Quorly told


“He is unique, isn’t he?” Feeling a little better

about himself, he turned back to the Quorum. “All

right then. We’re still alive and we’ve still got our wits

about us. Opiode, if you’re such a great wizard, how

come you haven’t magicked your way out of this


“Do you not think I have tried, man? The first

thing Markus did after we were placed in this cell

was to ensorcel it with some kind of containment

spell. My powers are useless here. Not that I think he

fears my magic, as he has already defeated me in

contest, but he is very careful and takes no chances

with any who oppose him.”

Jon-Tom nodded, eyed the stone walls surround-

ing them on three sides. “What about digging our

way out?”

“With this?” Cascuyom held up a spoon and a

dull-bladed knife. “Even if we could cut into this old

rock with our eating utensils, we don’t have enough


Jon-Tom was about to make another suggestion

but was interrupted. Footsteps sounded on the stairs

outside their cell. Everyone turned to look.

The jaguar who had overseen their capture strode

down the steps, leading a group of heavily armed

guards. He approached the bars and peered through.

The prisoners glared back, their expressions run-

ning the gamut from defiance to contempt. The

officer ignored them.

“Which one of you is the leader here?” He grinned

nastily. “And I don’t mean you, Trendavi. The only

thing you lead anymore is the procession to the

urinal.” The deposed premier said nothing. He had



retained his dignity if not his position. “Come on,

speak up.”

” T is,” said Mudge suddenly, pointing toward Jon-


“Thanks,” Jon-Tom said dryly.

Mudge shrugged. “You always said you wanted to

lead, mate. No reason to be bashful now.”

Memaw stepped forward. “I am the leader, you

young hooligan. 1 will go with you.” The javelina

opened the grate-

Jon-Tom pushed her gently aside. “No, Memaw.

It’s all right. I’ll go.” He turned to face the jaguar.

“Where are we going?”

“The Great Markus wishes to know why you have

infiltrated his home and how many other traitors lie

in wait outside to cause him further mischief.”

“Ain’t no other traitors but us,” said Knorckle.

Memaw turned and swatted him up the side of his

head, knocking his hat off. “Aren’t we clever today,

Knorckle. Tell me, are you going to help them pull

the lever when they hang us, too?”

“Sorry, mum.” The abashed Knorckle bent to re-

trieve his hat.

“Markus,” the officer continued, “would also know

whence you came, whether any of you escaped, and

what the intentions of your allies on the outside

might be.” This time none of the prisoners was

inspired to comment. The jaguar returned his gaze

to Jon-Tom.

“I advise you to cooperate and reply truthfully to

any questions Markus may ask.” Jon-Tom’s heart

gave a little jump but he held his silence. “Master of

the dark arts that he is, he possesses means of

making you tell the truth that are both slow and


“Then I’m to be taken to Markus?” The jaguar


Alan Dean Foster


Jon-Tom could hardly believe his luck. That was

just what they’d been trying to achieve all along. He

didn’t say that, of course. Instead he tried to look

defiant. “I’m looking forward to the meeting.”

“Then you’re either braver than you look or

dumber.” The jaguar gestured. The guards formed

a semicircle around the cell entrance while thejavelina

pushed the gate inward. As soon as Jon-Tom had

been pulled out, the gate was slammed shut again.

The noise echoed through the dungeon.

“There is just one thing ” Jon-Tom spoke off-


The jaguar eyed him impatiently, paws on hips.

“Don’t waste my time, man, or I’ll have you dragged

into Markus’s presence. He won’t like that.”

Jon-Tom leaned close, whispered conspiratorially.

“I’m not really the leader of this bunch. I’m a wan-

dering minstrel, see, and I was forced to join them.

Now, I know you probably think I’m making this all

up”—the jaguar nodded sagely—”but that’s why I’m

not afraid of meeting the great Markus. He’ll know

the truth. Only thing is, I’m afraid he won’t believe

me unless he hears me sing, and I can’t sing without

my duar. The one your troops took from me.”

The officer considered, eyeing Jon-Tom intently.

For his part, the prisoner assumed the blandest

expression he could manage. Finally the jaguar glanced

toward his subofficer.

“What of what he says?”

The fox replied in a gruff voice. “Aye, there was a

duar among the supplies we inventoried.”

“Was it thoroughly inspected?” Jon-Tom couldn’t


“It was, sir. Appears to be a perfectly ordinary

instrument.” Jon-Tom breathed again.

The officer nodded absently toward Jon-Tom. “A

peculiar encumbrance to carry into battle. Yet you



say you came to talk and not to Fight.” He grinned.

“Well, you can’t have it back ”

“But it’s only an instrument,” Jon-Tom pleaded,

seeing a last chance slipping away.

‘Tough. Personal property of all you traitors is

confiscated. There is one way .you could regain

possession, however.”

“What do I have to do^”

“Convince Markus you’re innocent.” The jaguar’s

laughter boomed through the dungeon. “Let’s go,

and let there be no more talk of what you wanti”

The otters crowded against the bars, shouting

encouragement, while the deposed members of the

Quorum hung back near the rear of the cell and

looked on sadly.

“Chin up,Jonny-Tom!… stiff upper lip, old boy…

don’t let ’em get to you … show ’em wot you’re made

of, Jon-Tom!… give ’em ‘ell, mate!”

Jon-Tom turned and rewarded his friends with a

hopeful smile as he started up the steps. A trio of

alert guards preceded him while three more followed.

The officer stayed close to his side at all times. No

chance to break free.

They climbed half a dozen flights of stairs until

they finally emerged onto a stone parapet. After the

heavy damp of the dungeon, the cool night air was a

shock to his system. Several stories below, the water

of the great lake glistened in the moonlight.

As they marched him toward a tower, he thought

of making a break for it, of diving over the side to

freedom. Two things restrained him. For one, if he

happened to misjudge his leap, he would splatter

himself all over the stones below. For another, he was

a much better runner than he was a swimmer. No

doubt Markus had his own allies among the aquatic

species. Armed beavers or muskrats could recapture

him in seconds.

Alan Dean Foeter


Besides, it might cost him his chance to finally

meet (his mysterious Markus the Ineluctable. He’d

rather have gone to the meeting with his duar nestled

reassuringly under his arm, but at least he was going

to see what their nemesis was made of. He wondered

if the officer paralleling him sensed his nervousness.

What would Markus the Ineluctable be like? Human.

yes. He already knew that. But what kind of human,

and from what world? His own, this one, somewhere

else? Was Markus nothing more than an ambitious

local wizard who’d concocted his story of coming

over from another universe solely to frighten and

intimidate his opponents? Or did he come from

some mysterious unknown dimension where evil held


What was “human” and what was not? Couldn’t

something with horns on its head and a barbed tail

be described as human? And if the latter description

proved to be nearer the truth, what concern would

such a creature have with the petty problems of one

Jonathan Thomas Meriweather?

The tower they were marching toward could only

be approached by a single narrow walkway. Elsewhere,

the stone walls fell sharply toward the water far

below. The guards Hanking the entrance were the

largest Jon-Tom had seen. Both lions stood half a

head taller than six feet and were armed with mas-

sive metal axes.

The jaguar exchanged greetings with his oversized

cousins, and the party was admitted to a hallway

beyond. Once inside, Jon-Tom couldn’t help noticing

that his escort abruptly lost a lot of its boldness.

They exchanged anxious, uneasy whispers and

searched the torchlit corridor with darting, nervous

eyes. Their words and reactions showed they didn’t

want to proceed any farther down that singular

passageway, but the jaguar bravely led them on.


Until they halted ten feet from a last door. The

officer took Jon-Tom’s arm and pulled him forward.

Stopping before the door, be rapped three times on

the wood with one paw. The door opened slightly.

Putting the other paw in the middle of Jon-Tom’s

back, the officer gave him a shove and sent him

stumbling inward. The door was pulled shut quickly

behind him.

The room was not large, with a high ceiling and

open wooden beams from which dangled wired-

together skeletons. Whether they had belonged to

the subjects of arcane experiments or to unlucky

supplicants, Jon-Tom had no way of knowing. The

room was softly lit, and the source of the illumina-

tion was a shock.

In place of the familiar torches or oil lamps or, for

those wealthy enough to afford them, globes containing

light spells, were several battered but serviceable-

looking fluorescent light fixtures. Though he searched

hard, he couldn’t see any cords or sockets. Never-

theless, the lights shone efficiently.

The furnishings were of local manufacture. Many

were decorated with gold and pewter. There was a

large table with chairs, many sculptures and wall

hangings, and several tall crystal vases full of jewels.

Of more interest than that, than even the fluorescent

lights, were the three two-foot-long model airplanes

ensconced neatly in alcoves in one wall- There was a

Fokker biplane painted red, a Cutlass WWII dive

bomber, and a miniature Beechcraft Bonanza.

“You may approach,” declared a voice.

Jon-Tom whirled and stared toward the poorly lit

far end of the room. The voice was heavily accented.

Was this Markus the Ineluctable? He moved toward

the voice, ready to retreat as best he could if the

wizard reacted with blind rage.

As he crossed the room he made out a large

Alan Dean Poster


wooden throne resting on a dais several steps higher

than the rest of the chamber. Small tables held silver

candlesticks. Leaning up against one leg of the throne

was an exquisite, bejeweled, and quite functional

sword. Jon-Tom was cheered by the sight. It hinted

that the Great Markus didn’t have total confidence

in his magical abilities-

Markus the Ineluctable slouched on his throne

and regarded his prisoner imperiously. Resting by

the wizard’s right hand was by far the strangest

object in the room. Jon-Tom couldn’t take his eyes

off it.

“I am,” the inhabitant of the throne announced

grandly, “Markus the Ineluctable, Markus the Great,

Ruler of Quasequa and all the Lakes District and all

the lands that conjoin them. Soon to be Emperor of

the World.”

“Yeah,” Jon-Tom replied evenly, “I know who you

are. What I want to know,” he said, pointing at the

alien intrusion lying next to the wizard’s right hand,

“is if that’s a pastrami on rye. It looks like a pastrami

on rye.” He sniffed. “It smells like a pastrami on rye.

It’s got to be a pastrami on rye!” His mouth was

salivating. He could smell the mustard ten feet away.

Markus’s eyes widened as he stood. Jon-Tom had a

dear view of him for the First time. He wore a

strange black suit backed by a dirty white shin and

black bow tie. The tie rode the collar slightly askew.

There was a moth-eaten black top hat on his head.

In his left hand he held a stick or cane of black

plastic tipped with white at both ends. A black cape

trailed across the throne behind him.

All in all he presented a moderately impressive

appearance, except for one thing which the inhabit-

ants of Quasequa would tend to overlook. Markus’s

shoes were brown brogans.

“How dare you digress in my presence!” he snapped,



but there was evident uncertainty in his accusation.

It lacked conviction.

Five six, maybe five seven,”Jen-Tom decided. In his

late forties and not in real swell shape. In fact,

despite the wizard’s strenuous efforts to suck it in, a

‘ substantial paunch kept creeping .out over his belt

line. There didn’t appear to be much hair beneath

the black top hat. Bushy brown eyebrows framed

deeply sunk, dark eyes. Bags sagged beneath. The

nose was flat and almost triangular. Jon-Tom couldn’t

tell if the shape was natural or the result of having

been broken several times.

The mouth was thin and delicate, almost girlish.

Frizzy sideburns exploded from both sides of the

head. An enormous fake diamond ring glistened on

one Finger.

“Excuse me. It’s just that the last time I saw a

pastrami on rye was in the Westwood Deli on Wilshire

Boulevard. If you knew what I’ve been eating these

past months, you’d understand my reaction.”

Markus the Ineluctable descended from his throne

and found himself in the awkward position of having

to stare up at his prisoner.

“Where’d you hear that?”

“I’ve heard it all my life.” He was no longer afraid.

t” Still not too hopeful, but no longer afraid. “I’m a

graduate student…! was a graduate student… in

law at UCLA until I found myself yanked over here.”

“UCLA.” Markus mumbled. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

He circled his visitor slowly, inspecting him as careful-

ly as would a museum curator who’djust unwrapped

a newly arrived statue. “You aren’t putting me on,

kid? You’re for real?”

“Damn right I am. The question is, who the hell

are you?”

At this the wizard straightened slightly, “I’m Markus

the Ineluctable, that’s who. Ruler of Qusquoqua.” He

Alan Dean Foster


shook his head. “Damn. Never can get that right.

Ruler of Quasequa.”

“Can the bullshit and tell me who you are and how

you got here,”

Markus nodded up at him. “A!! right.” He re-

moved his top hat, set it on a nearby table. Jon-Tom

saw that he was bald ail the way to the back of his


“But first you tell me how you got here, kid.”

“1 don’t know,” Jon-Tom told him truthfully. “A

local wizard needed help, and for some reason I got

picked on. It was a mistake, but that hasn’t made me

feel a whole tot better. He can’t send me back, at

least not for a long lime. So I’m stuck here. I’ve been

stuck here for quite a while. How about you?”

“Well, you know, kid, it’s the damndest thing…”

Jon-Tom found a chair and settled down to listen.


“See,” Markus told him “I’m a professional magi-

cian.” Jon-Tom chose not to comment on this. Hear

him out, he told himself. Markus was more than

willing to talk; indeed, he seemed eager to do so.

“Markus the Ineluctable’s my stage handle. My

real name is Markle Kratzmeier, from Perth Amboy,

, New Jersey. I’ve been doing the same schtick for

years, all up and down the East Coast. I mean, I

knew I’d never get rich, but it was better than

pushing lettuce around in the market, and you can

work your own hours. And you never know when

some agent might see you and ask you to go out to


“Haven’t made it yet, though. Once played a nice

joint in Manhattan and a couple of times a real sharp

club in Atlantic City, but usually I ain’t that lucky. 1

do the usual gigs: private parties, bar mitzvahs, kids’

birthdays.” He made a face. “God, I hate doing kids’

birthdays. Little snot-noses always crawling all over

you, throwing up and begging for candy. I’ve also

worked most of the bump-and-grind joints from

Jersey City all the way down the coast to Surf City.

I’ve seen a lot ot Hte. kid, and not much of it pretty.”


Alan Dean Poster


He took a deep breath and leaned on one of the

tables for support.

“So anyway, there I am in this Con Edison power

plant. Bunch of the guys who run the place are

throwing a stag party for their foreman because the

sap’s getting married the next day. They don’t have

enough money to rent a hall, so they get together

with the night shift and decorate part of the plant on

the sly, see? Wasn’t so bad. I’ve worked in worse

dumps. It was noisy in there, but at least it was clean.

“I’m doing my stuff, building to my big finish,

and it’s going pretty good because they’re all smashed

or stoned anyway.”

“Big finish?”

“Yeah.” Markus beamed proudly. “I saw one of the

gals or one of the guys from the audience in half.”

“That’s original.”

“Hey, don’t knock it. kid. Maybe it’s an old trick, but

it stilt buffaloes the marks. Anyway, I have to do one

more thing before I get to go home. There’s this

big cake, see?”

“I get the picture,” Jen-Tom said, nodding.

“Yeah. They hired this bimbo from one of the

local topless joints.” He paused, thinking, and those

bushy brows drew together. “Merill, or Cheryl, I

think her name was. Anyway, she’s gonna pop out of

the cake in her swimsuit. The trick is I’m going to

wave my wand after the guys get through moaning

and make her suit fall off. Pretty neat, huh?”

“Very witty,” Jon-Tom admitted carefully.

“So I’m trying to do it up right, give these guys

their money’s worth. I’m waving my wand all over the

place”—he demonstrated by fluttering the cheap

plastic wand—”only I don’t look where I’m going.

Suddenly everybody’s shouting, and the broad is

screaming, and I feel myself going ass-over-backwards,

and I think, okay, that’s it, you dumb schmuck, you



finally bought it. Had to overdo it for a couple of

extra tips. I’m falling over and over and the damn

cape’s m my eyes and 1 can\ see a thing except I get

just a quick look at this big dynamo or generator or

whatever the hell it was.

“Then I hit it. Tell me something, kid. When you

were little, did you ever get real clever and stick your

finger in a socket?” Jon-Tom nodded. “Well. for about

ten seconds there 1 felt like I’d done just that, only

with my head. I’m shaking all over before 1 black out.

“When I wake up, I’m lying in a room in this

rockpile and there’s this big dumpy character lean-

ing over me asking me if I feel okay” Markus’s

tone was earnest. “Kid, I don’t mind telling you that

this is a little tough to take, coming off a slag party

where I didn’t have a damn thing to drink. I swear,

not a drop! Couple of beers maybe, one shot of rye.

Pretty good stuff too. But I know I ain’t drunk.

“So I try to keep cool even though this refugee

from a horror flick is standing over me. and I get the

idea to wave my wand and make with a few magic

words to try and scare it away, and what do you

think happens? Something picks the big jerk up and

throws him across the room.” He paused to take a

long drink from a pewter tankard. “Local booze ain’t

half-bad, kid. Anyways, I see that this mass of talking

meat is more scared of me than I am of him. So 1

start fooling around with the old wand”—he con-

ducted his words with the plasic as he spoke—”and

what do you think I find out?”

“What?” asked Jon-Tom guardedly.

“That all those cheap tricks I’ve been practicing for

twenty-five years, all the junk I’ve been doing for

spoiled brats in Westchester and their tight-assed moth-

ers who wouldn’t give me the time of day, they all work

here. For real. I can do real magic. Not only like the

stuff I’ve always done, but new stuff, too. Ain’t that a pip?

Alan Dean Foster


“So I talk to this big dummy who found me and see

that he’s long on muscle but slow upstairs, and 1

get the lay of the land. I find out that there’s another

magician here who kinda runs things from’an advisor’s

post. I feel my way around, introduce myself real

nice, and finally meet up with a couple of the guys

who sit on this Quorum or Mafia or Congress or

whatever you want to call it. Some of them see which

way the shit’s flying and some of them don’t, and

with a little magic and the help of the ones who see

right, I take over the whole damn city.” He spread

his hands and grinned.

“Just like that. Me, Markle Kratzmeier from Perth

Amboy. Now I’m the advisor, the chief, the head

honcho. And this is only the beginning, kid. Only

the beginning. These hairy rubes think I’m the greatest

thing to hit them since chopped liver. And you know

what? I am. There’s got to be stuff I can do I ain’t

even thought up yet. Me, Markle Kratzmeier. After

years of eating dirt and yessiring and no-ma’aming

and putting up with you wouldn’t believe what kind

of shit, I’m on top. You know what? It feels good!”

“That sounds swell,” Jon-Tom agreed. “You know

what else? I can do a little magic myself.”

“Izzat so?” Markus suddenly looked wary.

“Oh, nothing big, nothing like what you’ve done,”

Jon-Tom hastened to reassure him. “Just small stuff.

Entertaining, like that.” He took a chance and moved

nearer. Markus didn’t back away from him-

“Now, what I was thinking was that with the two of

us working together on the problem, maybe we could

figure out a way for both of us to get back home.”

Markus eyed him in disbelief. “Get back home?

Why the hell would I want to get back home, kid? I

mean, look at the setup I’ve got here. Tell you what,

though. You play your cards right and don’t screw

up and maybe I can use you. It*d be nice to have



somebody to talk with about back home. But go

back?” He waved at the lavishly decorated room.

“You want me to trade this in and go back to doing

bar mitzvahs and weddings and working crappy clubs

up and down the Jersey coast? You got to be nuts, kid.

“Anyway, I wouldn’t know how to start getting

home, even if I cared to try it. No way. See, these

rubes know what money is, and what power is, even

if most of them do look like they came out of the

local zoo or dog pound. In other words, they know

what’s important in life. Maybe some of them have

whiskers that grow sideways instead of down, and

paws instead of palms, and fur coats instead of skin,

but they’re still people. And I can run the whole

bunch of them. Hell, I am running the whole bunch

of them! And like I said, this is just the begin-


“Know something else?” He winked and Jon-Tom

felt suddenly unclean. “There’s even people like us


“I know.”

“And some of the dames look pretty good. I’ve

seen some broads around here who could’ve made

it big in the big casinos except for what they all seem

to be a little on the short side- That suits me fine

since’I ain’t no center for the Knicks myself- They’re

all in awe of me, afraid of me.” Markus’s sunken

brown eyes looked more piggish than ever, Jon-

Tom mused.

“I like that. I like it a lot, kid. I like them all

bowing and scraping and cowering in front of me.

Go back home?” He laughed, a short nasty sound.

“If I tried touching any broads who looked half as

good as the ones here back in New York, they’d spit

on me and call a cop. You, you’re young and good-

looking, kid. You never had that happen to you. You

Alao Dean Foster


haven’t the vaguest idea what it’s like for a woman

you idolize to spit on you.

“Well, nobody spits on Markus the Ineluctable!”

he snarled. “Go home? I’d sooner cut my own throat

right now. All my life I’ve gotten the short end of the

stick. All my life people have cut me down. Well, no

more. This is my chance to get back at them, and I

ain’t giving it up!”

Jon-Tom listened to Markus rave on and forbore

from pointing out that the people of this world had

never put him down. Jon-Tom was Just old enough

and had seen just enough of the world to know for

the first time exactly what he was up against in the

person of Markus the Ineluctable.

He was one of the faceless ones, one of the

insignificant, uninspired, nameless persons whose

only real purpose in life was to occupy a few bytes in

a government computer. A number more than a

reality, an organic something in the shape of a man

who took up space. Someone who under normal

conditions was incapable of doing good and too

incompetent to do evil.

But a twist of space-time, a jog in the smooth

procession of events, an irony of eternity had thrust

him into this world and had placed him in a position

to do damage all out of proportion to his naturally

constituted self- In his own world Markle Kratzmeier

would simply have faded away without making much

of an impression on existence one way or the other.

But in this world, Markus the Ineluctable and his

ability to work magic posed a terrifying threat to

people who had never known of his history, his problems,

his concealed envies and hatreds. That didn’t matter to

someone like Markus, who believed that all the forces

of the universe were arrayed against him. He wanted

to strike out, strike back against life, and it wouldn’t

matter to him who or what got in his way.



So Jon-Tom had been both right and wrong. The

man who had usurped power in the city-state of

Quasequa was indeed from his own world, but only

in body. In spirit he was an alien, an evil import, and

a danger to everyone who came in contact with him.

The problem now at hand was not one of getting

home, but of saving himself and his friends.

It was clear that Markus’s only interest lay in

gathering as much power to himself as possible-

Carefully. Jon-Tom was going to have to proceed

very carefully. Markus wasn’t stupid. He was no

scholar, but he had street smarts, and those could

prove more dangerous than real intelligence.

“I understand- 1 mean, you’ve got a helluva setup

here. A couple of expatriates like you and me from

the good old U.S. of A., we ought to stick together.

Like I said. I’ve got a little talent myself. Noth-

ing like what you can do, of course, but I can do

small stuff- I know we wouldn’t be equal, wouldn’t

be a team. I wouldn’t expect that. But with my

abilities augmenting yours, we could really show

these dumb animals a thing or two.”

“Yeah. Hey, you know what I’d really like?” Markus

told him after he’d finished making his proposal.

“I’d really like a couple of Big Macs, some fries, and a

vanilla shake.”

“1 could go for that, too,” Jon-Tom told him

enthusiastically. “Why don’t you let me do this one?”

He looked around as if searching for something. “I

do my magic better with some music, though. It’s

like with your wand. Kind of helps to set the mood,

if you know what I mean. Your guards took my in-

strument away from me. If I could have it back I

promise you a regular MacFeast.” He pointed. “Right

on that table there. Then we can make plans.”

Markus stared at him for a long moment, then

repeated his thoroughly unpleasant laugh. “What’s

AlanDean Foster


the matter with you, kid? You think I was born

yesterday? You think I’ve spent all my life poking

through every dump on the East Coast without learn-

ing nothing about people?”

“1 don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jon-Tbm

said lamely.

“The hell you don’t- You’re too eager. Too eager to

throw in with me, too eager to help, too eager to

throw your buddies over, and you’re sure as hell too

eager to get your mitts on your guitar or whatever it

was that my boys took off you.” He smiled. It was no

more pleasant than his laugh-

“Tell you what, though. I’m a fair guy- This buddy

of mine 1 was telling you about earlier? His name’s

Prugg. Maybe I’ll let you wrestle him for your duar.

In fact, I’ll go one better than that. You beat him and

I’ll take you on as my partner, fifty-fifty split, straight

down the line. How’s that, kid?” Before Jon-Tbm

could reply, Markus looked past him and whistled.

“Hey, Prugg! Come on out and join us. 1 want to

introduce you to sm^rt-boy here.”

Something moved in the darkness near the back of

the room. A section of wall pivoted on its axis,

revealing an immense shape. It stepped out into the

room. In one paw it easily held an iron club that

looked like an Olympic barbell that had been melted

to a stub at one end. A leather cuirass two inches

thick covered it from chest to thighs.

The bear was nearly nine feet tall and probably

weighed in the neighborhood of a ton and a half.

“Kill now?” it rumbled expectantly.

“No, not now.” Markus looked back up at Jon-

Tom. “How about it, kid? Can you take him?”

“Come on,” Jon-Tbm said uneasily, “this isn’t funny.”

“You bet your smart ass it ain’t.” Markus’s smile

vanished as he moved forward until he was standing

right next to his prisoner. “You fucking college boys

Tm MOMENT or TOE BSAOicwt 259

think you know everything, don’t you? Mummy and

Daddy paying your way through school, paying for

your car and your dates?^

As a matter of fact, Jon-Tom had been holding

down two part-time jobs to help pay his tuition, but

Marfcus wouldn’t allow him a chance to get a word in


“Not me. When I was twelve I was hauling crates

of vegetables to make enough money to buy shoes.

Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash; all that shit.

You think I ever saw any of that money?” He shook

his head angrily. “My old man took it away from me

to buy booze with so he and my mother could go out

and get drunk every Saturday night.

“If you dropped one of those crates and it busted,

it came out of your salary. When the fresh stuff came

in from the truck farms in central and south Jersey,

the college boys used to come in from town to buy

for the supermarket chains. One time I was watching

one of the women who sometimes came in with

them. Real slick broad, long legs and everything.

“Anyway, 1 had a whole crate of tomatoes on my

back and 1 dropped it. Busted all over. Some of it

got on this buyer’s shoes, and they made me clean it

up right there in front of everybody. All the other

guys just laughed at me.

“I’ve never forgotten that, kid. Never thought I’d

have a chance to do anything about it, until now.”

“That wasn’t me,” Jon-Tom told him as calmly as

he could, “I wasn’t there. 1 probably hadn’t even

been born yet.”

“So what’s the difference? You intellectual schmucks

are all the same. Think you know belter than every-

body else. I’m giving you a better chance than your

kind gave me. I’m giving you a chance to fight your

way out.”

Alan Dean Foster


Prugg smiled thinly and let out a grunt that rolled

through the room like thunder.

“At least let me have my instrument.”

“Why, so you can work some magic maybe? Do a

disappearing act? Huh-uh, kid, not a chance. This is

my roll and I’m playing it for all it’s worth. I’m

keeping these dice unless fate jerks them out of my

hands. I’m going for the whole ball of wax this time,

and I don’t need any wise punks from back home

trying to muscle in on my territory. Tell you what I

will do, though. I’ll tell Prugg to go easy on you.

Maybe he won’t kill you. Maybe.” Then he was looking

toward the door as though Jon-Tom had ceased to

exist as a human being.

“Hey, Thornrack! Get in here.”

The jaguar who had conveyed j on-Tom from the

cell appeared. “Yes, Master?”

“Take this punk back downstairs and toss him in

with his friends, but don’t hurt him. I want him in

one piece for later.”

“Yes, Master.” Thornrack entered the room and

put a powerful paw on Jon-Tom’s shoulder. “Let’s

go, man.”

Markus’s jeering followed Jon-Tom as he was led

from the chamber. “What’s wrong, kid? No snide

remarks? No snappy comeback? I thought your kind

had an answer for everything. Don’t you? Don’t


The door slammed tight behind them, but as they

rejoined the waiting escort and started out of the

tower, Jon-Tom thought he could still hear Markus

the Ineluctable ranting and raving furiously behind


He wasn’t feeling very optimistic as they led him

back down into the bowels of the Quorumate, down

below the water line and into the dungeons again.

Somehow he had to regain possession of his duar.


The only way to unseat the two-bit dictator that Markle

Kratzmeier had turned into was with magic.

Certainly without the duar he wouldn’t stand a

chance against the bear-mountain named Prugg.

“Open it up,” the jaguar said to thejavelina turnkey.

Jon-Tom saw his companions lined up against the

bars. Clearly they read the expression on his face,

because there was no cheering. Only Opiode eyed

him with something approaching interest as the grille

was opened and he was shoved unceremoniously

inside. The grate closed with a metallic clang which

echoed through the darkness.

Guards and turnkey retreated up the stairs, chat-

ting conversationally. As soon as they were gone, the

otters crowded around him.

“Well, mate, ‘ow’d it go?”

“What did you learn?” Opiode asked curiously.

“He’s from my world, all right, but I resent having

to admit it. I didn’t actually see him work any magic,

but I don’t doubt that he can. His living quarters were

full of evidence.”

“He proved his abilities to me in person,” Opiode

said softly.

“Well, wot do *e want?” Mudge asked.

“The same thing every other tin-pot would-be

emperor wants: everything. He’s a dangerous, homi-

cidal^ frightened, thoroughgoing bastard, and that’s

giving him the benefit of the doubt. Oh, he did

make one show of magnanimity. He said that if I

could outfight his bodyguard, 1 might get my duar


“Prugg.” Domurmur nodded knowingly. “I like you,

man, but I’d put my wagering money on your


“So would I,” said Jon-Tom grimly. “I’ve got about

as much chance of beating him as I do of getting

Thornrack to let us escape. Less, probably.” He glanced

Al&n Dean Foster


down at Mudge. “Remember the bouncer at Ma-

dame Lorsha’s in Timswitty? This one makes him look

like a cub.”

Mudge’s whiskers twitched. “That don’t sound none

too promisin’, mate.”

“It isn’t.” He paused. Something had been trou-

bling him since he’d reentered the cell, but he’d been

too busy telling of his meeting with Markus to focus

on it. Now he did, and it gave him a start. “Hey, I

think I can feel a—”

Three pairs of furry paws slapped over his mouth

and most of the rest of his face, muffling him

completely. Memaw stepped close, put her fingers to

her lips. Jon-Tom nodded slowly and the paws were


Taking his hand in her paw, she quietly drew him

toward the darkest corner of the cell. The rest of the

otters moved aside to let them through. There was a

small twist and bend in the far corner where the cell

curved around to follow the contours of the outer

wall- It was there that Jon-Tom saw the source of the

thing thai had bothered him since he’d rejoined his


A steady breeze.

It rose from a section of floor where the paving

had been removed. The hole was rapidly being en-

larged by the otters’ best diggers. A pile of cracked

and broken rock was stacked neatly against the far

wall. Memaw pointed at it.

“Rotten, from age and the dampness. Quoriy smelled

the air coming in and we traced it back here to the

floor. We managed to break the old stones away.”

She leaned forward and whispered anxiously. “How

is it coming, my friends?”

Knorckle looked up at them. His face was smeared

with wet dirt and pulverized rock. “There’s somethin’


else down ‘ere, all right, mum. It ain’t solid and it

ain’t water.”

“Don’t smell none too good,” opined Mudge. He’d

moved up to stand nex? to Jon-Tom, who reflected

on the fact that the otter’s shifts in mood were as fast

as his tingere. “But ’tis air. Where’s she comin’ from?”

He leaned’over and tried to see into the hole. Flying

paws and dirt made it difficult.

“Maybe a way out,” murmured Memaw, hardly

daring to hope.

Selryndi had walked over to watch. The squirrel

drew his tattered cloak tightly around him, sniffed.

“Can’t be. This is the lowest level of the Quorumate.”

“Not necessarily, my friends.” Those who weren’t

digging turned to look at Opiode, whose expression

for the First time reflected his nickname- That in

itself gave Jon-Tom cause to hope- “There are.,.

stories.” His wise, shining eyes roved over the ancient

masonry. “The Quorumate Complex is the largest

structure in Quasequa, and the oldest. It is said that

as it was built, the Lake of Sorrowful Pearls rose

around it, so that the dungeon we are now imprisoned

in once stood above the water line.

“It is, therefore, not inconceivable that there could

be still older levels farther below.”

The digging crews worked in relays while the rest

kept a careful watch on the stairway. Their energy

and determination was wondrous to behold, except

when someone got in someone else’s way. Then

Memaw would have to step in and break up the

fight. These were always brief and harmless, but

they cost precious minutes. There was no telling

when the turnkey or Thornrack might return and

decide to make a cursory inspection of their cell.

Jon-Tom didn’t much care what lay below the

broken, sodden stones. Anything would be better

than having to face Markus’s bodyguard in combat.

Alan Dean Foster


“She’s wide enough now.” Frangel wiped his paws

on his shorts. “Who’s first down the bung-‘ole?”

“I’ll go,” said Memaw. Sasswise pushed her aside.

“No you don’t, mum. Beauty before brains.”

“That’s what 1 said, my dear,” countered Memaw,

shoving back.

While the two of them argued, Ftutzasarangelik

(but you can call him Flutz) jumped between them

and disappeared through the gap in the floor. The

soft thump of his landing was heard clearly by those

waiting anxiously above.

“It’s not too bad,” he whispered up at them. “I’m

in some kind of tunnel. There’s a little water runnin’

along the bottom, and I can ‘ear it drippin’ down the

wails in a couple o’ places, but she seems solid


“How big is it?” Memaw called to him.

“Not very. Old drainage tunnel, I thinks. I *ave to

bend to clear the ceiling.”

Jon-Tom went cold. He’d always been a little

claustrophobic and had trouble enough in local build-

ings with low ceilings. If Flutz had to bend, that

meant he’d have to go on hands and knees, or

crab-walk. This through a narrow tunnel full of

water, below the level of the lake beyond, toward an

unknown destination.

And the tunnel might get smaller as they went,

closing in around them tighter and tighter, pressing

against his sides as well as his legs until…

A hand nudged him. “Hey, mate, are you all

right?” There was genuine concern on Mudge’s face.

“You look a mite green.”

Jon-Tom took several long, measured breaths. “I’m

okay. Let’s go.”

Quorly followed Flutz, then Sasswise, then Frangel.

Selryndi was next in line and pulled up short, eyeing

the dark hole uneasily.



“Let’s not be hasty. We don’t know what’s down


“But we do know what. is up here,” said Opiode,

stepping around him. The salamander’s tail twitched

as he spoke. “Slow starvation and continued humili-

ation, or worse.”

“Easy for you to say, wizard. You are as much at

home underwater as a fish.” He gestured at the

otters. “To a certain extent, so are these industrious

visitors. But the rest of us are strictly dry-land air-

breathers. What if the water should rise to the ceiling?”

“What if the sun should fail to rise tomorrow?”

said Opiode. “Remain here if you wish, and give our

apologies to Markus the Ineluctable. The rest of us

have an appointment with freedom.” He turned and

plunged through the opening, displaying an agility

that belied his age.

Old Trendavi followed him, the pangolin’s scales

barely clearing the gap. The rest of the Quorum

followed until only Selryndi remained.

Jon-Tom dropped through the hole and looked up

at him. “I’m as much of a drylander as you are,

Selryndi. If I can stand it, so can you.”

The squirrel stood staring down at the tall young

human. Then he muttered something under his

breath, tucked his tail up against his back, and jumped.

The rest of the otters brought up the rear. They

took care to replace the floor as best they could. Any

delay in discovering the hole would help to confuse


Once the gap had been reseated, it was pitch-black

inside the tunnel. Jon-Tom found he could still walk

so long as he kept bent double. It hurt his back, but

it was better than trying to crawl through the shallow,

cold water that ran along the bottom of the tunnel.

[, Still, he kept knocking his head against the ceiling,

Aim Dean Foster


which fortunately had been worn smooth over the


It was anything but a pleasant hike- He kept

bumping into furry bodies ahead and others stum-

bled into him from behind. Their only link and only

guides were touch, smell, and anxious whispers.

They walked for what seemed like miles in the

darkness before Frangel’s voice echoed down the

tunnel. “There’s a branching up ‘ere. Which way?”

“From which direction does the air flow most

strongly?” Memaw inquired.

“From the left, mum, but the ceiling there is a bit

lower.” Jon-Tom cursed softly.

“Ignore it, mate,” said Mudge from just in front of

him. “You can ‘andle it.”

“I’ll have to. If I go back to that cell, I’ll have to go

two falls out of three with a two-ton rug.”

“Move on!” Mudge shouted toward the front of the

line. “We’re all okay back “ere.”

They pushed ahead until Frangel called another

halt. “There’s water comin’ in ‘ere pretty good,”

The tine shuffled slightly and Jon-Tom could hear

the otters scratching around.

“Stone’s loose,” Memaw announced evenly. “We

could probably break through. If the lake didn’t

come in too fast we could get out this way.”

“Maybe you could,” said Selryndi, “but what about

the rest of us? We don’t know how long we’d have to

hold our breath.”

“Is not the chance of freedom better than the sure

death that awaits us all back in our prison?” Opiode

asked him.

“Easy for you to say, gill-wizard.”

“Memaw,” Jon-Tom broke in, “does the tunnel go



“Then I think we should keep going. Maybe we’ll



find a better place. If not, we can stilt come back and

try to break through here.”

“My thoughts are the same, young man,” she

replied. “We are not abandoning anyone.” A chorus

of ayes rose from the rest of the otters and the line

started forward once again.

As he stumbled past the place Frangel had found,

cold water spurted over Jon-Tom’s legs. The take lay

just beyond that feeble wall, ready to break in at any

” moment. If it gave way white they were further up

. -the tunnel…

He forced himself to concentrate on the path ahead.

They seemed to be walking in a wide curve back

toward the left, though the darkness had him

completely disoriented. It didn’t seem to bother the

otters, though. He wondered if they would eventual-

ly arrive back at their starting point beneath the cell.

Better the lake should break in.

Then Frangel’s voice from up ahead, “It’s opening


Moments later they emerged from the tunnel into

a vast open bowl- Jon-Tom’s back protested as he

straightened up. At first the big chamber seemed as

dark as the tunnel, but as his eyes adjusted he found

he was just able to make out dim outlines in the


The source of illumination was weak with distance:

a tiny circle of light far above them.

“A well o’ some kind,” Quorly suggested, “inside

the bloomin’ Quorumate. That sound familiar to any

o’ you blokes?”

The Quorum members put their heads together

and considered. None of them had taken much of

an interest in the architecture of the rambling collec-

tion of structures they ruled from. Only Opiode had

any ideas.

“In less civilized times condemned criminals were

Alan Dean Foster


rumored to have been thrown into such pits. It may

be that this is such a place, long abandoned and only

recently rediscovered.”

“Damn!” Mudge shouted abruptly.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” Jon-Tom asked him-

“Tripped over somethin’, mate.” He fumbled a bit

in the darkness, lifted something for all of them to

feel. jon-Tom identified it immediately. It was a

primate skull.

Opiode took it from Mudge and they could see his

hands moving over the bone. “Cracked when the

owner was thrown from above,” he announced. Eyes

immediately went to that distant circle of light.

It was quiet for a moment. Then Sasswise said,

“Come on then, you lazy lot. Let’s see *ow big this ‘ole

is. Maybe there’s another way in.”

Everyone fanned out and began feeling along the

wall. Climbing was out of the question, even for the

agile otters. The damp stones arched to form a

dome overhead. Only Opiode might have been able

to manage it, in his younger days. Now he did not

have the strength to cling to such a slick overhang.

“Got an idea,” said Mudge. “Let’s make a pyramid.”

The otters discussed the proposal briefly, then

settled themselves in the center of the chamber and

proceeded to put. on an astonishing display of

acrobatics- They managed to stack themselves four

high, but Splitch was still yards shy of the point

where the vertical shaft of the well broadened out to

form the curved ceiling.

The pyramid was collapsed and the otters brushed

themselves off. “Wouldn’t ‘ave mattered if I could’ve

reached the bottom,” Spiitch told them- “The shaft’s

as slick as a snowslide, and there ain’t a ‘and’old in

sight. She’s too wide to bridge.” She eyed Jon-Tom

thoughtfully. “You’re long enough to do it, Jonny-

Tom, but we’ve no way to get you up there.”



“We had best find some way out,” said Opiode.

This skul! is fresh.” Everyone shuffled about uneasily.

“Doesn’t mean a lot,” said Domurmur. “One of

Markus’s latest victims, no doubt.”

“No doubt,” agreed Opiode readily. “The question

is, if the victinvis a recent one, who or what has so

efficiently removed the flesh from the bone?” Faint

light glinted off his bulging eyes as he searched the


“If I only had my duar,” Jon-Tom was muttering.

“I might be able to sing up a ladder or rope or

something. If only we—”

‘. He was interrupted by noise from above. Voices,

and the blare of ceremonial trumpets.

“Everyone, get back from the opening and keep

quiet!’* Opiode ordered them. They spread out quickly.

Sounds of a scuffle overhead, another blare of

trumpets, and then a horrible high-pitched scream

– that increased rapidly in volume. It stopped abruptly

t when something struck the stone floor with a wet,

sickening thud. The object bounced once and then

lay still.

The sounds from above went away. Jon-Tom leaned

cautiously into the light and saw nothing. Slowly, the

refugees gathered around the thing that had been

‘thrown down the well.

It was a small macaque, no more than four feet

tall. A torn white lace ruffle ringed the neck above a

green-and-blue jersey which was tucked into dark

green shorts of bright snakeskin- Gold embroidery

decorated the sleeves, and a belt of thin gold links

circled the narrow waist-

The neck was twisted at an unnatural angle. One

arm lay bent straight up behind the spine. Open eyes

stared toward the well.

“Died instantly,” commented .Opiode softly. “Neck

broke when he hit. Poor fellow.”

270 Aim Dean foster

Cascuyom pushed his way to the fore. “1 know

him. That is the honorable Jestutia.”

“Yes, I know him also.” Selryndi bent over the

body. ‘”One of our most respected citizens.” He^ glanced

up toward the top of the shaft. “Markus must be

feeling very confident, to begin murdering such promi-

nent individuals.”

“Quiet, be quiet!” That was Mudge, snapping at

them from somewhere far off to the left.

“Listen, otter, one of our colleagues and friends

has just been foully slain, and I see no reason to—”

“Shut up, nut-eater, or I’ll stuff that tail of yours

down your throat,” His voice dropped an octave.

“There’s somethin’ else in ‘ere with us.”

A chill raced down jon-Tom’s back. Something

had removed the meat from that first skull. “Mudge,

we checked out…”

“There’s another tunnel over ‘ere, mates. A big

one. And there’s somethin’ in it, and I think *tis

startin’ to move.”

“You are trying to frighten us,” Selryndi said


“Oh, why sure, now, that’s it, guv’nor,” said Mudge

sarcastically. “I’ve got nothin’ better to do than make

up scary stories, right?” He rejoined them and put a

hand on the squirrel’s back. ” ‘Ow about you go and

‘ave a looksee over there, guv, and prove me out 10

be the liar you say I am.” Selryndi’s feet dug into the


“Listen, all of you,” Memaw urged them- Mudge

and Selryndi quit squabbling as something scraped

against distant stones. This was followed by a heavy

wheeze. Wind from another tunnel, Jon-Tbm thought-

Or something waking up.

Unconsciously, everyone retreated toward the drain-

age tunnel. “What do the old legends say about

this?” Jon-Tom asked the wizard.


“Nothing,” came Opiode’s whispered reply. “There

is not supposed to be anything down here. This is

the place of the dead.”

Chunk! Gravel shifted underfoot, followed by a vast

exhaling and an odor like burning charcoal. Quoriy

clung to Miidge’s arm.

“Tis comin’ this way!”

“Stay still, don’t let it know we’re afraid,” Mudge

told her, trying to edge behind Memaw and Sasswise.

Optode raised a hand and muttered something

under his breath, but it had no effect on whatever

shared the chamber with them. It was moving nearer.

“It is no use- I am still constrained from working

magic by the spell Markus laid upon me. 1 cannot

break free.”

“Get ready to run for the tunnel,” Memaw told

them. It lay close at hand, but it would take time for

all of them to crowd inside the narrow opening, and

a sudden rush ran the risk of stirring to action

whatever was coming toward them.

There was a brief explosion of flame in the darkness,

accompanied by a thick acrid smell. Then a low

growl, rich and throaty.

“Try singin’ somethin*, matel” Mudge urged Jon-


“But 1 haven’t got the duar.”

“Try anyway, mate. Try somethin’l”

“Sasswise,” said Memaw, “you, Flutz, and I will try

to divert its attention while the others file into the

tunnel. The rest of you prepare yourselves.” The

otters scrambled to salvage old bones, rocks, any-

thing that might be used as a weapon.

Jon-Tom began to sing. He had no plan in mind,

no brilliant ideas, and he was certain the magic

wouldn’t happen without the duar’s music, but he

had to try. If nothing else, it might concentrate the

thing’s attention on him while the others fled into

Alan Dean Porter


the tunnel. The first notes trembled, but his voice

steadied as he sang on. He could hear his companions

rushing for the tunnel entrance,

An immense outline turned toward him -.. and

hesitated. Mudge called out to him.

“That’s it, mate! Keep singin’. ‘Tis workin!”

It couldn’t be, Jon-Tom thought. There was no

magic without the duar, none, no way! It couldn’t be


Yet there was no question of it: the thing had

halted in its leisurely approach,

A thunderous whisper filled the chamber then.


“Blimey,” muttered Splitch, “it knows ‘im!”

“It knows the spellsinger,” Opiode observed aloud.

“Spellsinger,” the voice echoed in the darkness.

Jon-Tom squinted, trying to see in the poor light

as he took a reluctant step forward.

A blast of fire erupted over his head- Screams

came from the otters and the Quorum members as

they rushed in panic for the tunnel, running into

each other and stumbling over the bones on the

floor. But Jon-Tom didn’t move. The fire had passed

over him. Nor had it been directed at any of his

companions. It had been aimed ceilmgward, to gen-

erate light and not destruction.

The instant of brilliant illumination hurt his eyes,

but not so badly that he couldn’t recognize its source.

“Comrade Falameezar,” he asked hesitantly, “is that



A great clawed hand descended and picked Jon-Tom

off the floor. He could feel the thick, leathery mem-

brane that ran between the fingers. The hand lifted

him until it paused in front of a mouth full of

curving teeth. A single puff could incinerate him in

a second, sizzle his bones and melt his flesh. There

was heat and the smell of brimstone, but no hint of


“It is you, Falameezar! I’ll be damned.”

“We are all damned, comrade Jon-Tom,” said the

dragon somberly. “What are you doing here?”

Jon-Tom sat down on the slick, scaly palm and

turned to his triends. “It’s okay. He’s a friend. This is

comrade Falameezar, a good proletarian.”

“What is the man talking about?” Memaw asked


The otter strode boldly out into the chamber. “We

know this bloke, we do, ‘E ‘elped us once before, on

our way to Polastrindu. Though wot ‘e’s doin’ ‘ere I’ll

be buggered if I know.” He looked back into the

tunnel, which was filled with anxious faces. “Everyone,

’tis all right. You can come out. Only,” he added

more quietly, “wotever you do, don’t say anythin’

about makin’ money.” He fought to recall some of


Alan Dean Poster


the confusing but effective conversations Jon-Tom

had held with the river dragon as it had carried

them up the river Tailaroam toward far Polastrindu

not so very long ago. The dragon was. – – what had

Jon-Tom called it?… a Marked Met. No, something

more compact. Marxist, yeah, that was it. The drag-

on was a Marxist, whatever that was.

But he was certainly sensitive about it. Dedicated,

Jon-Tbm had called him. Mudge knew better. The

dragon was nuts.

He spoke to his friends as they hesitantly emerged

from hiding. “Just act collective,” he told them.

“What does that mean?” Memaw asked him.

” ‘Ow the ‘ell do I know? Just make sure everybody

does it.”

Jon-Tbm was patting the dragon on the snout.

“Comrade Falameezar, it appears we are to be com-

panions in misfortune.”

“So it would seem.” The dragon set him down

gently, then looked around and opened his mouth.

Another blast of flame spewed forth. The members

of the Quorum cowered against the nearest wall. but

Opiode and the otters edged forward.

Falameezar’s well-aimed blast set a huge pile of

debris on fire. It burned fitfully at best but provided

enough light for everyone to see ctearly for the first

time since they’d fled from their cell. They gathered

around while the dragon lay down on his belly, crossed

his arms, and rested his head against them.

“How did you get here?” Jon-Tom asked him.

“I wasn’t having much luck trying to raise the

consciousness of the masses who live on the shores of

the Tailaroam,” the dragon explained, “so 1 deter-

mined to try to find a group of the oppressed who

were more receptive.

“I’d heard much of this land, where the lakes are

large and the fish plentiful. So I made my way here



and, surely enough, found the workers badly in need

of organizing.” He sighed and a puff of smoke drifted

ceilingward. “But as so often seems to happen, the

people here were reluctant to listen to me”

“Can’t imagine why,” Quorly whispered.

“So I decideokthis time to try to convert the heads

of state instead of the people.”

“Uh-oh,” said Jon-Tom.

“Precisely, comrade. 1 allowed myself to be de-

ceived by the honeyed words of the local ruler, a

strange human very different from yourself.”

“Markus the Ineluctable.”

“Yes. I did not know at first that he had deposed

the rightful rulers of this place, nor that he was a

powerful magician as well as a disgusting fascist

whose only aim is the exploitation of the masses for

personal gain. But by the time I learned all this he

had rendered me sleepy. I vaguely remember being

brought to the large room above. The floor was

removed and I was dropped down here, and then

walled up.

“I’ve tried to break out but the stone is solid and

thick. It will not burn. So here I have remained,

trapped by this evil imperialist. He does feed me

well. though. The trumpet calls me when a meal is

ready.” Falameezar moved his head and sniffed at the

body of Jestutia. “A banker this time. Markus is

clever. He has learned that I will only eat capitalists.”

“I’m surprised at you.” Jon-Tom said accusingly.

“Even a banker can be converted to the cause of the


“Not if he’s dead.” The dragon sniffed again. “Yes,

a dead banker. I’m sure of it- I hate bankers, you

know. Filthy robber-barons.”

Near the back wall Newmadeen was hurriedly

going through her pockets. Like the recently de-

ceased macaque, she was also in the business of

Alan Dean Poster


lending money. Until now she’d never had reason to

regret it. Fortunately, Falameezar was too involved in

conversation with his newfound friends to do any

serious sniffing, and she was able to unburden her-

self of money, notes, and assorted usurious I.O.U.’s.

“Besides,” he was saying, “a dragon has to eat.” He

extended his long neck and snapped up the unfortu-

nate Jestutia in a single bite, chewed noisily.

” *Ere now,” murmured Sasswise, looking at New-

madeen, “this one’s gone and fainted.”

Falameezar noticed it, too, sniffed curiously as he

chewed. “What’s wrong with your companion? If I

didn’t know better I’d …”

Jon-Tom hurried to distract the dragon. “It’s the

air down here. These are the legitimate rulers of

Quasequa, by the way. They have no more love for

Markus than you. They constitute the legitimate, uh,

soviet that the magician has deposed.”

“I did not realize that this government was so

advanced,” Falameezar replied in surprise.

“They’re working on it,” Jon-Tom assured him.

“Aren’t you?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” The conscious members of the

Quorum managed to reply with enthusiasm, if a bit

too quickly.

Falameezar looked pleased. “It is good to have

right-thinking company in such sad circumstances-

As it is good to see my old comrade again. You, too,

Mudge. even if you did express the occasional reac-

tionary thought.” The otter allowed himself to be

stroked by a single swordlike talon.

“If only I could get ahold of my duar,” Jon-Tom

mumbled. “Markus hasn’t placed any anti-magic spells

on me.”

“That is so,’* admitted Opiode. “I would have

sensed it if he had.”


“Then there’s only one thing left to try.” He started

toward the tunnel. “I have to go back to our cell.”

“You’re jokin’, mate.” ‘

“No, Mudge. It’s the only .way. I’ve got an idea.

Mudge, will you and Quorly come back with me?”

“Count on me, Jenny-Tom,” she replied. Her ready

agreement made Mudge’s acquiescence a foregone


“I’ll be back in a little while, Falameezar”

“Good luck, comrade.”

“Just a minute.” Men-law stepped in front of Jon-

Tom as he bent to enter the tunnel. She looked

significantly past him. “What do we talk about with

the dragon?”

“Anything you can think of. He likes to chat- The

last weather we saw outside, jokes… Falameezar’s

great with jokes. Simple things. Just make sure no-

body talks about how rich they’d like to be. Fame you

can talk about, but not fortune. Tell him how much

you all despise the capitalist bosses.”

“What are those?”

“Never mind. Just do it. It’ll please him.”

Memaw was still reluctant to let him leave. “What

are you going to do, work some strange magic on

our behalf?” He nodded. “But I thought you told us

you required your duar in order to work magic.”

“There’s magic, and then there’s magic.” He winked

at her, then bent and began gathering bones. As

many as he could carry. He directed Mudge and

Quorly to do likewise.

“Oi, it works better when you use the duar, mate.

There’s less to carry.” Staggering beneath his grue-

some burden, he followed Quorly and Jon-Tom into

the tunnel.

Making their way through the narrow tube had

been difficult enough with their hands free. With the

armfuls of bones it was twice as hard. But the otters

Aim Dean Foster


never complained, and Jon-Tom was damned if he

was going to be the one to call for a rest.

Eventually they found themselves beneath the en-

trance to their cell. They dumped their loads. Mudge

went up Jon-Tom’s back as lithely as he would have a

tree, and listened.

“Dead quiet, mate. They ‘aven’t checked on us

since we took our little walk. No need to, really.

Wasn’t likely we’d be goin’ anywhere, now, was it?”

“Move those stones and let’s get up there.”

“Right, mate, but you’d better know wot you’re


“You’ll understand soon enough.”

Sure enough, once their cargo had been arranged

according to his instructions, Mudge knew just what

his lanky, furless friend had in mind.

“What was that?” The javelina turnkey spoke to

the fennec seated across the table. The fennec’s

oversized ears immediately cocked sideways.

“Beats me. 1 heard it too.” He put aside his

handful of odd triangular cards and shouted toward

the stairway. “You prisoners be quiet or you won’t get

your next ration of slop!”

The eerie moaning which had interrupted their

game grew louder.

“Don’t sound like the otters,” said the javelina,

cleaning a nail on one upthrust tusk. He then used

it to strip the bark from a piece of cane, stuck the

clean pulp in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

When the moaning continued he put down his cards,

careful not to reveal them to his companion, and

issued an irritated grunt-

“We’d better see what’s going on down there.”

“Maybe they’re killing each other.”

“They’d better not be. Thomrack himself ordered

me to make sure they stay healthy until the new

magician decides what’s to be done with them.”


He took a three-foot-long knife off the wall. The

fennec opted for a long spear. This was excellent for

poking at prisoners through bqrs.

Each grabbed a torch as they started down the

stairs. Soon they were on the lower level, staring

through the bars^of the big cell. Staring hard.

“By the curl in my grandmother’s tail!” the stunned

javelina muttered. “What’s happened to them?” His

initial irritation had turned to panic.

“Dead,” moaned a quavering voice from the back

of the cell, “they’re all deeeaddd.”

“What do you mean, all dead?” the fennec stuttered

as he struggled to locate the speaker. The voice

responded with a moan.

“Open it up,” he told the turnkey. The javelina

nodded, used his keys and then his hands to swing

the huge grate slightly ajar. Hefting the long knife,

he entered cautiously while the fennec waited by the

door in case any of the prisoners tried to make a

break for it-

No one did. There was no one in the cell.

Except… in the farthest corner he found the tall

man sitting with his back against the wall. His hands

half covered his face, and he was shaking in terror.

“What’s the matter with you?” The turnkey’s eyes

roamed the deserted darkness nervously. “Where are

the rest of them?”

“The wizard, it was the wizard who did it,” Jon-

Tom moaned feebly. He gestured with a shaky hand.

“Pid it to all of them.”

“Did what?” The javelina’s blunt muzzle twitched

as he followed the pointing Fingers.

A substantial pile of white bones lay nearby, heaped

up in a jumble against the wall. Had the turnkey

taken the time to look closely he might have seen

that none of the skeletons belonged to otters, or a

salamander, or a pangolin, but to entirely different

Al«n Dean Foster


species. It might not have mattered anyway. His

knowledge of anatomy was pretty much restricted to

knowing where the best place to stick a knife was.

**By the Ovens of Suranis!” he whispered fearfully.

“What is it, where are all the prisoners?” The

fennec stuck his head into the cell, trying to see.

“Gone, all gone. Nothing left of them except their

bones.” The javelina swung his torch to illuminate as

much of the cell as possible, “What manner of sor-

cery is this?”

“He did it. The salamander did it,”

“Old Opiode?”

“Yes, yes, the slimy one! He said he was tired of

this, tired of everyone and everything, and he did

this. Only I was s-s-spared.”

“A spell was put on him to prevent him from

working magic. The new wizard did that himself. We

were told,” the javelina insisted.

“I know, I know, but the slimy one struck a bargain

with the creatures of the dark, and now he’s going to

do that to all who oppose him.” Jon-Tom pointed

toward the pile of bones- “1 saw, 1 saw him do it. He

made the flesh run like butter from their bones.

made it melt and drip…”

The fennec couldn’t stand it anymore. His mind

told him there was only one live prisoner left in the

cell and his curiosity was killing him. He held his

spear in front of him as he entered.

“What’s this garbage this fool’s saying?” he asked

the turnkey.

“Look, they’re all dead,” stuttered the javelina. He

pointed at the bones. “The wizard Opiode killed

them. A great sorcery.” There was fear in his voice


“1 don’t know about that,” muttered the fennec,

“but we’d belter tell Thomrack.” He started backing

toward the exit,



As he did so, Mudge and Quorly dropped from

the crevices in the ceiling where they’d been hiding

and flailed away at the guards with the leg bones

they’d been holding in their teeth. The javelina

[, dropped his long knife, the man he’d been question-

ing underwent-a miraculous transformation, and in

seconds both guards lay dead on the floor of the cell.

Mudge netted the fennec’s spear while Quoriy

helped herself to the knife from his belt. “Now, that,”

Mudge said with ghoulish satisfaction, “is wot I calls

magic!” He kicked the javeiina in the side.

“I’m sorry we had to kill them,” Jon-Tom murmured.

“I don’t like unnecessary slaughter.”

“Oi, but this were necessary slaughter,” Quoriy

observed. She glanced at Mudge. “Wot is ‘e. squeam-

ish or somethin’?’*

“Or somethin*, luv, but don’t ‘old it against *un.”

They crept out of the cell and started up the stairs.

No one challenged them when they entered the

deserted guard room, where they helped themselves

to handfuls of weapons. Thus equipped, they took

the place apart searching for Mudge’s bow and Jon-

Tom’s duar.

“No luck,” grumbled Mudge as he finished exca-

vating the last cabinet. “Maybe further up. I thought

I saw a barred storeroom on our right when they

| were bringin’ us down ‘ere.”

Jon-Tom nodded. They climbed to the next level.

Where they found the storeroom Mudge remem-

bered. They also saw a pudgy but alert hare standing

in front of the half-open door.

At the same time, the rabbit saw them and turned

to slam the door shut. Mudge threw his spear and

the swinging grate slammed against it. The guard

did manage a piercing scream before Quoriy could

cut his throat. Nothing can scream like a dying hare.

“Shit!” Quoriy snapped, her eyes going immediately

Aim Dean roster



to the stairwell leading upward. “That’ll bring ’em

down on us in a minute. I’ll watch while you and

Mudgey get your stuff.”

Jon-Tom rushed into the storeroom. Tossed indif-

ferently on a pile of spears was his ramwood staff.

He grasped it like an old friend’s proffered hand.

But where was the duar?

“Right, mate, let’s go.”

He turned. Mudge stood waiting nearby. His quiv-

er of arrows and longbow were slung against his

back. and he was staggering beneath a load of metal

and rock. Long links of gold coins were draped

across his chest like bandoliers while necklaces of

pearls and gems hung from his neck and wrists. His

arms were full of gem-encrusted plates and goblets.

Two tiaras rested askew on his crushed cap.

“Mudge, what the hell are you doing?”

The otter blinked, then looked embarrassed. He

dropped his heavy load. Coins and gems went rolling

across the floor.

“Sorry, mate. For a minim there 1 kind o’ forgot

where we are.” Reluctantly, he unburdened himself

of the rest of the treasure. “Couldn’t we maybe take

just a wee bit with us?”

“No, we could not.” Jon-Tom snapped angrily.

“Will you two kindly get your arses in gear?”

Quorly’s shout reached them along with pounding

footsteps from the stairs. There was a startled squeal

and a four-foot-tall armored hedgehog went sprawling

into the room, bleeding from a stab wound in the

belly. “I can’t hold this lot off forever.”

Jon-Tom turned to search the room, but Mudge

spun him around. The otter’s eyes were wide as he

pointed, not into the storeroom, but across the floor.

“There she is, mate!”

Jon-Tom fairly flew across the stones toward the

crackling fireplace. He ignored the heat and the



cinders as he yanked the priceless duar from the top

of the fire. It was blackened in a couple of spots, but

the strings were intact and so was the body. He

tested it, was rewarded with a familiar mellow ring.

“That,” he gulped, “was too close.” He tried the

tremble and mass controls. Everything worked. A

slight shudder went through the paving stones as the

music filled the room. “Let’s get out of herel”

Only the fact that the stairwell was so narrow had

enabled Quorly to hold off the guards. Mudge glee-

fully went to work with his longbow, and in a couple

of minutes the passage was blocked by the bodies of

the fallen. Those guards who hadn’t been shafled


• “That ought to ‘old the bastards,” Mudge said with


They plunged down the stairs, for the moment

pursued only by confused shouts and angry cries.

Jon-Tom had thoughtfully requisitioned the unfortu-

nate javelina’s keys. Now he used them to lock the

cell from the inside. Arrows flashed past him. The

guards had finally managed to bring up archers of

their own.

Jon-Tom tossed the keys into the hole in the floor

and followed them down.

“Wot about puttin’ the stones back in place?” Quorly

, asked as she fell on top of him and slid off to one


“Take too much time,” he told her. “They saw us

come in here. As soon as they get the door open, the

first thing they’ll do is start checking the walls and

the floor.” He started running down the tunnel,

cursing as he bumped against the unyielding ceiling

while trying to juggle his burden of staff, duar, and

extra weapons.

They weren’t halfway back to the well chamber

when excited yells sounded behind them. Some of

Alan Dean Footer


Jon-Tom’s initial confidence evaporated and he tried

to run faster, but it was hard to speed up in the

confines of the tunnel.

“I didn’t think they’d follow us down here,” he

yelled to his companions.

“I imagine they figure they can follow anyplace we

can go, mate.”

“You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

“Now wot kind o’ cowards do you think we are?”

Mudge replied, outraged. “Do you think that after

all we’ve been through together, you and I, ‘avin’

come all this ways, that I’d for a minute think o’

leavin’ you behind to get your behind shot off? Wot

do you take me for?”

Jon-Tom was gasping for breath now but still couldn’t

keep from replying. “There’s also the fact that unless

I can manage to do something with this duar, we’ll

all likely never get out of here.”

“Well, yeah, that ‘ad occurred to me, too,” Mudge

confessed –

Jon-Tom grinned, though he knew the otter couldn’t

see him. “Glad to hear it. For a second I thought the

dampness might’ve addled your brain.”

“Now, mate, you do old Mudge an injustice.” But

the otter didn’t complain very strongly.

Meanwhile their pursuit continued to gain ground

on them. Occasionally a flicker of light from closing

torches would reach the refugees, spurring them to

run still faster. The tunnel seemed to have stretched

in their absence, lengthening like a rubber tube. The

only advantage they possessed was the assurance of

knowing their destination.

Even so, by the time the faint circle of light that

marked the entrance to the well chamber appeared

ahead, the guards were near enough for Jon-Tom to

pick out individual voices. The three of them stum-

bled into the room, tripping and spilling weapons in


all directions. The otters grabbed them up and waited

tfor whatever might come.

Jon-Tom rolled over, discovered a pair of crossbow

bolts protruding from the back of his cape. Once

again he’d been saved by the thick leather. He plucked

them out as several guards emerged from the tunnel

mouth, only to find themselves confronted by not

three but more than a dozen armed opponents.

Thornrack struggled to catch his breath, held his

sword over his head. “All right, you’ve had your fun.

You’ve led us a hard chase, but that’s over now.” He

glared around until he located Jon-Tom- “We’ll see

how well you run with your calf muscles cut.”

At that point Falameezar lifted his head, closed

^one eye, and spat. A small globe of very intense

flame struck the jaguar’s sword, which melted like

taffy. Eyes bulging at the immense outline which was

slowly rising behind the otters, Thornrack dropped

the glowing metal and bolted for the tunnel. He ran

into the guards who were clustered thickly behind


Falameezar sighted and went poof with his lips.

Thornrack’s tail burst into flame, and he redoubled

his efforts to push past his own troops. They could

hear ‘him cursing and screaming halfway back through

the tunnel.

*T don’t think we’ll have any more trouble from

that direction,” observed Jon-Tom dryly.

“No,” agreed Opiode, dampening their euphoria,

“but he will report what has happened back to Markus,

and you can be certain the magician vail do something-

There are only two openings to this room: the tunnel

and the mouth of the old well above us. Both could

easily be plugged- We could be sealed in here to

starve or suffocate, and no magic would be required

to accomplish those ends. Somehow we must get out

Alan Dean Foster


before Markus has time to react to our escape.”

Those salamander-slick eyes turned to Jon-Tom.

“Clothahump must have had confidence in you to

send you by yourself in response to my request. If

you are any kind of spellsinger, you must free us

from this prison now. Even a wizard needs room to

maneuver, and we have none of that here.”

*”E’s right, mate. We got your bloomin’ music box

back. Now show ’em wot you can do!”

Every eye turned to him. He was glad it was dark

so they couldn’t see how nervous he was- A song—

what would be the right song?

johnny Cash’s “Fol&om Prison Blues” created no

openings -in the stone walls, nor did any song of

prisons or chain gangs. He started to sweat despite

the coolness. Mudge sat down, looking resigned.

He’d been through this before. Opiode looked disap-

pointed and the rest of the party confused. It hurt

Jon-Tom’s recall, though his playing was as smooth

as ever.

“Wot’s wrong?” Quorly leaned over Mudge and

snuggled close. “Nothin’s ‘appenin’.”

Mudge ran fingers lightly over her fur. tt Tis just

the way it works sometimes. ‘E’s a spellsinger for

sure, but ‘e’s still new to ‘is profession and don’t quite

*ave the *ang o’ it quite. Sometimes the magic works

and sometimes it don’t. And sometimes you just ‘ave

to be patient.”

“I’ll try,” she murmured worriedly, “but Opiode

said we didn’t have a lot of time.”

Jon-Tom sang until he began to grow hoarse, and

still the singing produced no results. Only a few idle

gneechees, who didn’t hang around long enough for

him to finish a single tune.

More to cheer himself than out of any hope of

doing anything, he launched into a spirited ren-



dition of Def Lepard’s “Rock of Ages.” StBl no magical

escape hatches appeared, no stairways or corridors.

He got something else, though. ^

The otters stirred. Awed whispers rose from die

Quorum members. Opiode’s eyes narrowed, and he

stroked his chin as he tried to analyze the meaning

of this bizarre conjuration. Powerful sorcery it was,

but of what kind, and what could it portend?

Only Mudge knew the origin of the shifting, glow-

ing shapes that had appeared and now danced glee-

fully around the spellsinger’s feet. He knew because

he’d encountered them once before.

“Wot did you call ’em, mate?” he asked softly,

staring along with the others.

The duar continued to produce thunderous, ring-

ing chords. “Geolks,” Jon-Tom shouted at him, “but

what are we going to do with them?”


The exquisite phosphorescent worm-forms continued

to multiply, until they occupied much of the floor

and most of the walls. They twisted and flowed

through the stone in a peculiar cadence all their

own, sometimes in time to the rhythm of the duar,

sometimes in time to one utterly alien. The chamber

was alive with living rainbows.

Jon-Tom concluded a brazen chorus, kept playing

as he spoke. “Hello! Do you remember me?”

“It is good to see you again, music-maker.’* The

speaker might have been the same one who’d con-

versed with Jon-Tom back among the karst pinnacles

in the Wrounipai, or it might have been another.

There was no way of knowing for certain- Color was

no clue. “Singing still, we see.”

“Yes, but not freely. We’re trapped in this place.”

He tried to alter the melody subtly, to substitute his

words for Lepard’s lyrics. “Trapped in this awful

dark place.”

“Awful? What is the difference between one vacu-

um and another?” the worm asked him.

“Freedom of movement. Something you take for

granted. Can you help us out of here? I’ll play

whatever you like for as long as you want if you’ll just




help us get out of here. There’s an opening higher

up. Can you make something we can climb?”

“What is ‘climb’?” inquired a coolly curious geolk.

The other prisoners looked on in mesmerized silence.

“What is ‘out’? We like your emptiness but your

movements concern us not.”

There had to be something they could do, he

thought desperately. What could the geolks do? They

could move freely through solid rock, come and go

as they pleased and…

They could make earthquakes.

“Find a crack in this wall… in the rock that sur-

rounds us. Link together as I saw you do before. Feel

the music.”

“Nothing to do with us,” the geolks insisted distantly.

“To tremor we have to work together, and right now

we do not feel like working together.”

“Don’t feel like working together?” a new voice

said. Jon-Tom continued to sing while trying simul-

taneously to quiet Falameezar, but the dragon’s politi-

cal consciousness was up and he refused to be shushed.

If anything, he looked inspired.

“Leave this to me, comrade. This is a matter of


“But you don’t understand, Falameezar,” Jon-Tom

said desperately. “These aren’t your usual folks. They


“Workers of the world, arise!” Falameezar bellowed.

“Join together in solidarity and nothing can stop


“Nothing can stop us now,” a bright blue geolk

replied. “And we are not workers.”

Falameezar would have none of it, continued to

lambast the glowing shapes with the profoundest

barrage of Marxist rhetoric Jon-Tom had ever heard.

It made absolutely no sense to him, but it seemed to

hypnotize the geolks.

Alan Dean Foster


“Make Vladimir Ilyich proud of you,” Falameezar

rumbled. “Show the world what true collective action

can do!”

Whether it was Jon-Tom’s music or the dragon’s

rhetoric or a combination of both, the geolks started

to line up on the far wall, twisting and curling

against one another.

“Get back, everybody,” Mudge warned the onlookers.

“And don’t be surprised no matter wot ‘appens. Be

ready” He grinned at his friend the spellsinger. “Bugger

me for a blue-eyed bandicoot if I don’t think we’re

gettin’ out o* ‘ere!”

Still the geolks continued to gather, until the oppo-

site wall of the well chamber was alive with blinding

light- Jon-Tom had to close his eyes to shut out the

intense glow.

Falameezar roared something about the worker’s

imperative at the same time that Jon-Tom and his

duar thundered out the opening words of Quiet

Riot’s “Cum On Feel the Noize.” The earth trembled

as the huge rope of geolks convulsed. The concus-

sion knocked Jon-Tom off his feet, and even Falameezar

was tossed sideways.

His head rattling, he tried to keep playing, tried to

do it as fluidly as Jimi or Robin Trower or Eddie van

Halen would have. Finally he had to stop because the

dust in his nostrils was choking him.

He opened his eyes to a different kind of light,

The geolks were gone, and so was much of the far

wall. Light washed over the bottom of the well be-

cause the right side of the roof had collapsed. In

place of wall and roof was a pile of rubble that

reached all the way to the main floor above.

Falameezar shoved his way clear of the talus. “Free!

Free from the imperialist neo-colonialist yoke!” He

started pawing up the steep slope. “Where is he, lead

me to him!”


“Easy, easy, comrade!” Jon-Tom struggled to catch

up to the angry dragon- “If he sees you, he’ll only

put you to sleep again.”

“No, he will not,” said Falameezar decisively. “The

people are awake to reality now, and not4ing can put

them to sleep again.” Flame and smoke billowed

from his jaws. ^’I’ll reduce the fascist dictator to a

cinder.” He started climbing again.

“Don’t underestimate him!” Jon-Tom shouted

up at the dragon, but to no avail. Falameezar

wasn’t dumb, but he was more than a litde impulsive,

especially when the revolutionary fever was on


Shouts sounded from the floor above, and they

found themselves looking up at Markus’s guards.

Their expressions were more than a little fearful as

they stared down into the gaping hole that had

materialized practically under their feet. If that

wasn’t enough to send them running, the sight of

Falameezar climbing rapidly toward them finished

the job. The floor cleared with gratifying swift-


“He’ll keep the sohders busy,” Jon-Tom muttered,

“but I’ll have to handle Markus. Somehow.”

“You can do it. mate. You’re the only one who

can,” Mudge said.

Jon-Tom looked grim. “Maybe I can convince the

geolks to concentrate in his spine. Hell, we’ll get him!

I just managed a Marxist earthquake, didn’t I?” He

looked past the otter, waved to the others. “All right,

let’s go!”

Yelling and barking enthusiastically, the otters

followed him up the slope. Opiode and the Quorum

members trailed at a discreet distance. They were

administrators, not fighters.

Falameezar was searching the intact part of the big

room, hunting for fascists. Occasionally a guard or

Alan Dean Foster


two would peer through a doorway, Only to be sent

fleeing by a ferocious blast of flame. Falameezer

launched into a spirited rendition of the “Internation-

ale.” He was out of tune and had the words aU wrong,

but Jon-Tom wasn’t about to correct him. The scaly

Marxist was having too good a time incinerating

capitalist dupes.

“We’ve got to Find Markus as fast as possible,

before he can get his wits together. Fatameezar will

keep his guards occupied.” He looked at Trendavi,

the deposed premier. “Can you show us the way to

his tower?”

The aged pangolin nodded. “Without fail, my

friends.” He led them through a still-standing door.

Occasionally they encountered some of Markus’s

guards, but while the otters were usually outanned

and outweighed, they were never intimidated. Guards

broke and ran without Fighting. No doubt word of

the escape was already racing through the Quorumate,

and no solider wanted to risk the chance of encounter-

ing a bunch of hyperkinetic fanatics who might be

backed up by a Fire-breathing, if somewhat verbose,


“This way,” Trendavi told them, turning to his left.

Then they were outside, on the parapet Jon-Tom

had been marched across not so long ago, racing

toward Markus’s sanctuary.

“He has outsmarted himself,” Opiode commented

as they slowed. The members of the Quorum were

near collapse from the run, but not. the salamander.

His eyes glittered. “None can approach from three

sides, but by the same token there is only this way


“I’m going in,” Jon-Tom told them. “The rest of

you stay behind me”

“I was about to suggest that meself,” said Mudge.

They rushed forward. There was no sign of the


two armed lions who had flanked the entrance when

Jon-Tom had been brought here before.

Actually, now that the final confrontation was at

hand, Jon-Tom wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. He

didn’t tell his companions that.

Attack. Always keep the opposition off balance.

That was how he’d been taught and that was what he

intended to do- The advice had come, not from a

class on warfare, but on courtroom procedure. Jon-

Tom didn’t see why it wouldn’t apply as well on the

battleField as in the courtroom.

Each inner door opened at their touch, until they

confronted a door-sized slab that did not. Instead of

moving aside, it leaned forward and growled. Black

leather armor gleamed in the torchlight. Prugg ges-

tured threateningly with his enormous club.

“You stop,” the bodyguard growled menacingly.

Frangel tried to dart past the bear. The club

descended with frightening speed and dented the

rock where the otter had been a split-second earlier.

Only Frangel’s exceptional quickness saved him. Any-

one slower than an otter would have been smashed

to pulp.

That was the signal for the rest of the band to

charge- Dodging Prugg’s lethal swings, they darted

all around him, poking and prodding with their

spears and swords while yelling encouragement to

each other-

“Get ‘im!… take ‘is bloomin* ‘ead off!… kill ‘imi… get

the ugly bastard down!”

“Knock ‘im over, tear ‘is throat out!” a solitary

voice yelled from behind Jon-Tom. The spellsinger

turned, tapped Mudge on the shoulder.

•/ “Kill? Tear his throat out?” he said dangerous-


Mudge put his paws behind his back and tried to

Aim Dean FoBter


smile. “1 was just sort o’ coverin’ our rear, mate.

Don’t want to be taken from behind, we don’t”

“Guarding our rear, my ass!”

*’0i, that’s wot 1 said, weren’t it?”

There were times when Jon-Tom could tolerate his

friend’s shameless displays ot cowardice. This wasn’t

one of them. Not with petite warriors like Sasswise

and Splitch fighting to make a path for him.

Actually, he went a little crazy.

“You rotten, smelly, no-good…!” Reaching down,

he grabbed Mudge by the tail and the ruff of his

neck. The otter’s feet bicycled through the air as he

fought to free himself.

“Hey, take it easy, mate!”

“Get in there and fight alongside your cousins,

damn you!”

Jon-Tom threw the Otter forward, harder than he

intended. He was too mad to judge his strength. To

his horror, Mudge performed a single somersault

and landed neatly on top of Prugg’s head. The

otter’s impact shoved the bear’s helmet down over

his eyes, temporarily blinding him. Seeing this, Quorly

lowered her head and charged underneath a deadly

but badly aimed swing to hit the bodyguard head-

first between pillarlike tegs. Prugg let out a low

grunt, bent over, and tried to find Mudge, who was

frantically retreating down the bear’s back. The club

fell to the floor.

Memaw, Knorckle, and Wupp immediately dropped

their own weapons in favor of the club. Turning the

business end toward their opponent, they rushed

forward at full speed, short legs churning, and made

loud contact with the leather helmet Mudge had so

recently abandoned. The impact sent them tum-


Prugg let out a strange low sigh and sort of keeled


over, like a falling redwood. He hit the floor with a

muffled brrouummmf, out cold.

Jon-Tom and the others raced past while the club-

wielders tried to collect themselves.

The last door beckoned. Were they in time? Hadf

they moved fast enough? Or was Markus the Ineluc-

table waiting just inside, prepared to strike all of

them dead with whatever new evil he had drawn into

this world?

Jon-Tom pushed on the latch. Somewhat to his

surprise, the door was not locked. The otters crowd-

ed in around him.

At the far end of the Room, Markus the Ineluctable,

nee Markle Kratzmeier, sat waiting on his throne.

He looked different somehow. He’d straightened his

bow tie and his white shirt gleamed. He did not seem

particularly upset by the intrusion.

“Heard what was going on, kid. Didn’t think you’d

get this far. Congratulations.” He tried to see past

Jon-Tom, out into the hall, searching for his bodyguard.

“Sleeping,” Jon-Tom told him wolfishly. “My friends

here took care of that.”

“Let me at the bald bastard!” yelled Drortch. Jon-

Tom had to put out an arm to restrain her.

“This looks easy. 1 don’t think it’s going to be”

“No, it ain’t, kid.” said Markus quietly as he rose.

Standing there on the dais, silhouetted by torchlight,

he did not look anything like the cheap stage magi-

cian from Perth Amboy that he’d once been. There

was a dark radiance about his person, a palpable

aura of evil. It poured down from the throne to

cascade over the onlookers clustered in the doorway,

and several of the otters reflexively shrank back.

Markus stepped off the dais. He was wearing white

gloves now, Jon-Tom noticed, and his shoes had been

polished to a blinding sheen. Still brown, though.

Aim Dean Foster


The speUunger held his ground as the magician

raised his plastic wand.

“Oops.” Mudge did his own disappearing act,

retreating back behind the door.

Markus lowered the wand and smiled. “See how

fast your companions desert you.”

“They’re not deserting me,” Jon-Tom told him. He

turned and looked down at his friends. “All of you:

this is between Markus and me- Wait in the hall.”

Obediently, they filed out, leaving him with words of

encouragement and a promise to rush in no matter

what the danger should he call out to them.

“That takes care of my friends. Where are yours?”

Markus lost his smile. “Wise-ass. You’ll be sorry.”

He glanced at the duar. “So that’s what you’ve been

so keen to get your hands on. Weird-lookin’ gadget.”

jon-lbm let his fingers fall casually across the

duar’s strings. An explosive note Filled the room.

“Hey, pretty good trick!” Markus complimented

him. “Here’s one of mine”

He aimed the wand at Jon-Tom and mumbled

under his breath.

Jon-Tom prepared to duck or sing, as the attack

demanded. Instead he nearly brokq^out laughing. A

steady stream of brightly colored scarves emerged

from the magician’s sleeve. It was exactly the sort of

trick you’d expect to see someone like Markus per-

form at a neighborhood party.

Except that the scarves knotted themselves around

his ankles and began enveloping his legs, winding

steadily upward. Meanwhile the flow from the

magician’s sleeve showed no signs of slowing.

If he didn’t do something fast, in a couple of

minutes he’d look like a psychedelic mummy. But

what songs did he know about clothing? About scarves,

or ties? Suddenly the flood of silk didn’t seem so


funny. There was an old cartoon song about”*? Chi-

nese laundry… no, that wouldn’t work.

In desperation he tried some lyrics from Carole

Ring’s “Tapestry” album. The scarves quivered but

didn’t vanish. Instead^they began to unknot themselves*

fold up neatly, and stack in piles according to color

on the nearby table. They unwound from his thighs

and calves, then his ankles, until they were twisting

and folding and stacking themselves as quickly as

they emerged from Markus’s sleeve.

Furthermore, each one bore in its upper right-

hand corner the monogram JTM.

Markus frowned, lowered his arm. The silk assault

ceased. “You’re fast, kid. Not fast enough to make it

in Atlantic City. but pretty good for here.” This time

he raised both hands. “For this one we need an


Something began to coalesce in the space between

them. A faint silvery glow that drew shape as well as

substance from his wand-and Fingers. An hourglass

.outline traced in air.

It didn’t have fangs or talons. Jon-Tom was enrap-

tured by it.

She was tall, as tall as he was. Blond, alluring, clad

in. next to nothing.. She was walking toward him and

whispering through puckered, inviting lips; cajoling

him, tempting him. pleading with him.

“Please, can 1 have a volunteer from the audience?**

Jon-Tom found himself stumbling forward, a step

at a time. He couldn’t be certain, but he thought he

could see Markus through her. A single gold tooth

flashed in the magician’s mouth. He was smiling

again. ,

Somehow Jon-Tom retreated, though the effort

of will required to back away from that seductive

‘ vision was tremendous. And she was still coming

i toward him,, one perfect hand outstretched to lead

Alan Dean Foster


him, lead him up onto the stage. How could he resist

her? She was obviously so beautiful, so innocent, so

badly in need of this job.

He couldn’t resist her. But he could sing to her.

Sure, nothing wrong with that. What gentle, reassur-

ing ballad could he dedicate to her?

Hesitantly at first, then with growing strength, he

began to play “Killer Queen,”

The blond houri contorted as the first chords

filled the room. She shimmied and twisted in front

of him, though not the way he wanted her to shim-

my and twist. But as she spun he was able to see the

knife she clutched in her other hand. With a cry she

lunged at him. Maybe he should have raised the

duar to absorb the force of the blow, but he just kept

on singing, trying to match the notes perfectly, trying

to imitate Freddie Mercury as best he could.

The instant before the knife started to come down

toward his throat, it, the girl, and the conjuration

dissolved before his eyes like a lump of sugar in a

cup of hot tea. *

He blinked. Markus growled something vile and

looked past him, mumbling and gesturing with his

wand. His black cape stood out behind him even

though there was no wind in the room.

A snarl came from behind Jon-Tom, familiar and

yet alien to this place. The sound of the faceless


They leaped from their alcoves, their curved teeth

aiming for his face. He ducked the Fokker and ran

for cover behind a table as they soared and dove at

him, thirsting for his eyes. He knew nothing about

airplanes. The only tune he could remember that had

anything at all to do with Hying machines seemed

insufficient to counter the threat, but maybe it would

buy him some tune.



So he sang, ” ‘Up, up and awaaay. in my beautiful

balloon;” £”

They filled the room in an instant: hundreds of

1 them. Thousands, in all colors and shapes and sizes.

| Dozens of pops and/bangs made it sound like, the ,

Chinese New Year as Markus’s metallic demons dashed

through the brightly colored obstacles.

The Fokker’s wing brushed Jon-Tom’s scalp as it

shot over him. Its sharp propellor, the same one that

had nearly decapitated a raven named Pandro, was

entangled in a hundred strips of thin latex. It execut-

ed a Final desperate Immelmann turn before it crashed

into the wall behind him. A minute later the second

demon bounced off the floor and skidded to a halt,

its engine gasping and completely jammed by dozens

of broken balloons.

When the third and last demon flew out a window,

sputtering and wheezing as it plunged to its death in

the waters below, jon-Tom concluded his song, sent a

silent thank-you from the Fourth Dimension to the

Fifth, and waited while the balloons evaporated to

see what Markus might try next.

He didn’t look scared. Not yet. But neither did he

look quite as sure of himself-

“You were right, kid. You were right and I was

wrong. You’re not a punk. You know your stuff.

Maybe we should make a deal after all.” He started

toward the younger man. “Here, a peace offering:

okay? Better we work something out between us than

we keep trying to knock each other off.”

Jon-Tom eyed him suspiciously, but this time

Markus’s hand brought forth no homicidal houris,

no mechanical assassins. Just a simple bouquet of


“Be more appropriate if you were a broad,” Markus

said, “but this is the best 1 can think of. Don’t flowers

Aim Dean FoBter


say it ail?** He waved the bouquet at his erstwhile


Jon-Tom grinned, found himself nodding in

agreement. Only problem was, he didn’t want to

nod. Nodding he was, though. Maybe it was because

the Howers smelled so beautiful, so fresh and relaxing.

Relaxing. He hadn’t been able to relax in a long

time. The flowers told him it was okay to relax, to

take it easy. A wonderfully reassuring, cloying mias-

ma issued from the bouquet.

“That’s it, kid. It’s all over. Nothing else to fight

about. We’ll just kiss and make up. Hell, what’s there

to fight about? There’s plenty here for us to


Somehow Jon-Tom backed away from that soporific

spiel, until his back was against the near wall and he

couldn’t retreat any further. Did he want to retreat?

The small part of him that hadn’t been drugged by

the bouquet’s aroma was frantic. Sing something! Sing

anything, the first thing that comes to mind, so long

as it has something to do with flowers!

Van Halen didn’t sing about flowers. Neither did

Men With Hats or Motley Crue or Godwanna. Blooms

and daisies weren’t the stuff heavy metal anthems

were made of.

Not every great new group was that heavy, though.

In fact, there was one…

He started to sing, amazed at how appropriate the

music was. So it would be better if he were a broad,

would it? Somehow that fit too.

This time he didn’t sing to Markus. He sang to the

bouquet. “‘Karma, karma, karma camelliaaa, you

come and go, you come and go, oh-oh-oh.'”

It was hard for him to duplicate Boy George’s

smooth, slightly buttery sound, but he managed, and

the duar spit out everything from the background

guitar to the harmonica solos. As Markus stared in


I shock at his hypnotic handful of blossoma^they

began to depart in time to the lyrics. Their petals spin-

ning like the blades of tiny helicopters, they lifted

[from his fingers and, traveling neatly in single Hie,

|circled once around Jen-Tom’s head before flying off

gin perfect formation through the nearby high window.

| Leaving behind in Markus’s hand a paper cone

|,which concealed a five-inch-long stiletto.

t Markus stumbled away from the spellsinger, re-

I’treating back toward the throne- His hat was askew

^on his head, and he’d lost a couple of buttons off his

cheap white shirt. He looked less like Markus the

Ineluctable and more like a cheap bum.

“You’re through here, Markus,” Jon-Tom told him,

“Quit while you’re ahead, before 1 really gel into my

music. I^s over, finished.”

i’ Markus pulled himself together, seeming to draw

fresh strength from his proximity to the throne and

the power it represented. “You think so, kid? You

think I’ve had enough? Hell, I’ve just been playing

up till now. Kid stuff. 1 thought that would be

enough, but I was wrong. It’s over, all right, but not

for me. For you.”

His face was wild, his expression full of concentrat-

ed fury. Everything he’d built here, everything he’d

taken from a world he’d been pulled into against his

will, was slipping out of his grasp. He was hanging

onto his sanity by emotional fingernails. No, he

wasn’t finished. He was Markus the Ineluctable, Em-

peror of Everything, and no skinny punk-rocker was

going to take that away from html,

Removing the top hat, he held it in his right hand

while whispering and passing the wand over the

i opening. Then he tapped the brim several times. At

f first nothing happened, and Jon-Tom found himself

^hoping that the magician had finally reached his

I limits.

302 Alan Dean Foster

Then something came creeping out of the hat.

The room darkened as the sickly green vapor

emerged. It pulsed with inner evil, curling around

the legs of chairs, clinging to the floor as it crept

down the steps from the dais. It moved slowly, explor-

ing the environment into which it had been summoned.

Markus eyed it uncertainly, and it occurred to

Jon-Tom that his opponent, in his anger and fury,

might have overextended himself, might have called

forth something stronger than he’d intended to.

Certainly that expanding cloud of poisonous green

sprang from a source of evil far stronger than per-

fumed bouquets and faceless demons. There was

nothing even faintly amusing about it. Despite its

apparent insubstantiality, it was real in a way none of

Markus’s previous conjurations could match.

The magician glanced down into his hat. Appar-

ently he saw something he didn’t like, because he

dropped it as if it had burned him and stepped back

toward the throne, never taking his eyes from it. The

hat tumbled down the steps, rolling to a stop on the

floor. The frightening cloud continued to pour forth

from the dark opening,

You could see through it, but the effort wa& dizzying.

Furthermore, there were shapes inside the cloud,

shapes that wrenched and heaved in agony at their

surroundings. They moaned softly as they fought to

escape their nebulous prison. The sound was chill-


Vapor reached the ceiling and began to spread out

sideways. Jon-Tom wanted to run, to get out of that

room. The threat that was Markus had been reduced

to insignificance by the cloud. Markus no longer

mattered. Only getting away, getting out of there,

getting away from that, mattered.

But a wispy tentacle of ichorous green brushed

his foot, and he found he couldn’t move. It was Just a



tiny thing, an airy caress. It paralyzed him in his


And it was so cold.

Eyes in the cloud then, small and piercing, floating

above a round oval of a mouth. They hovered within

the fog, sleepy and indifferent. The shapes flashed

and slipped around eyes and lips as they fought to


The cloud spoke softly in a patient, irresistible

voice. Jon-Tom felt a chill strike him with each word.

“I’ve come for you. It is good that you called me.”

Green vapor filled most of the room now. It was

starting to spread out along the wall behind him.

Soon it would engulf him completely. He knew what

would happen then. It would suck him up inside

itself, to join those other helpless, moaning stiapes.

Then he knew what it was that Markus had con-

jured up, had called forth out of the depths of his

fury and frustration. Instinct told him.

His body might be frozen to the spot, but he

found he could still talk. Maybe the vapor wanted

him to talk. Maybe that was a final gift it gave to all

that it swallowed up.

“You… you’re Death, aren’t you?”

An eloquent silence was his reply. Jon-Tom could

feel the cold dosing in around him, patient, irresistible.

“I didn’t know you could see Death.” The cloud

was thicker now, an icy green cold that began to

prick at his bare skin.

“Any man who cannot see Death approaching is

blind.” The mouth-oval drifted closer. It was going

to touch his own lips. The kiss of Death.

Jon-Tom listened to his own voice and was terri-

fied at how feeble it had become. “But… you said

you came for me. and that 1 called you. I didn’t call


For an instant oblivion retreated. The wisps of


Alaa Dean Foster


green foulness drew back and the cold fell away.

Jon-Tom found he was shivering, and it was the first

time in his life he regarded it as a sign of health.

“You called me.”

“No.” He tried to raise a hand to his duar, but

his fingers suddenly weighed a thousand pounds

apiece. He tried the other one, straining with his

whole being. It rose, slowly, but it rose. He moved it

because he had to. He didn’t try to touch the duar

this time. There was no point. Here was an opponent

his spellsinging could not defeat.

Fingers weak and trembling, he pointed through

the cloud.

“He called you.”

“No,” came a quavering voice from far across the

chamber. Markus cowered down on his throne, trying

to hide. “No, it wasn’t me. I didn’t call you!”

The eyes didn’t free Jon-Tom from their relentlessly

peaceful gaze- Perhaps another pair appeared else-

where within the cloud. There was a pause, a brief

eternity while the room hung suspended in the void.

Then Death whispered, “Markie Kratzmeier, age

forty-eight, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. You fell into

a dynamo. You were electrocuted instantly. You died.”

“No!” Markus shook as he waved his wand errati

cally toward the cloud. He was hysterical now, his

eyes wide as the vapor moved to envelop him. “No, I

didn’t diel I came here. I am here.”

“You died,” Death insisted softly. “I came for you

but you had gone. I couldn’t find you. I do not enjoy

being cheated.”

Then there was another sound in the room, a

sound that chilled Jon-Tom more thoroughly than

the touch of that annihilating fog. It was the sound

of Death laughing.

“And now you have called me back to you. And the

living say that life is full of little ironies.”



“NOI” Markus screamed. He fell to whimpering.

|”I didn’t call you, I didn’t. Go awaaay.” The wand

.twitched feebly in the air. “I send you back to where

| you come from. 1 command you.”

t The cloud was pulling away from the shivering

|Jon-Tom, dragging itself across the floor toward the

| throne. As it left him he found that he could move

i again. He started to head for the door, slowed

‘ thoughtfully. If Death wanted him, no door was

; going to stop it. Somehow he didn’t think that was

. going to happen. What had happened was that he

had almost been the victim of a fatal case of mistaken


He turned. The fog had surrounded Markus

•completely. He could still hear the unfortunate

| magician. The shapes inside the cloud reached out

| to welcome him into their company. The torches

1 winked out and there was only the green light left to

[‘see by-

t There were no dramatic shrieks or screams. The

|whimpering from the throne simply stopped. Then

| the cloud began to retreat, sucked back down into

^the hat from which it had been summoned forth. An

^-innocent-looking black top hat that the late Markus

the Ineluctable had probably paid no more than ten

bucks for in some cheap magic shop in Jersey City.

Then it was gone. Fresh air hesitantly wafted into

^ the room. All that remained of Markus the Ineluctable,

the All-Powerful, Ruler of Quasequa and the Lakes

District, was a piece of white-tipped black plastic a

foot long.

Still shivering, Jon-Tom strode over to the throne

and picked up the wand. He tapped it against the

wood. It made a soft clicking noise. On the side was

the legend Made in Hong Kong. Handling it gingerly,

he descended to the floor and dropped it into the

open hat. It vanished.

Alan Dean Foster


Then he took a deep breath and did the hardest

thing he’d ever done in his life. He picked up the

hat. Carrying it carefully in his right hand, he walked

over to the window nearby and threw it as far as he

could. It sailed out into the night and he watched it

fall. When it hit the water it was too light to make an

audible splash. Either it would sink or the current

would carry it into the river that drained the Lake of

Sorrowful Pearls, and the river would take it out to

the Glittergeist Sea to sink in thousands of fathoms

of sunless, specterless water.

He found himself feeling sorry for Markle Kratz-

meier. But not for Markus the Ineluctable.

Something creaked behind him. He jumped.

“You okay, mate?” inquired a hesitant voice. Mudge’s

face peeped uncertainly around the rim of the door.

Jon-Tom relaxed. “It’s all right, Mudge. It’s all

over. You can come in now.” He swallowed. “Everyone

can come in now.”

“Right, mate.” But Mudge made a thorough sur-

vey of the empty throne room before he entered.

Weapons drawn, the rest of the band rushed in

around him.

Memaw crossed her arms over her chest. “Brrri

Young man, it’s freezing in here. What happened?”

“Markus unintentionally called up an old friend of

his. They went away together.” Suddenly he was very

tired, searched for something to sit on. The throne

was out of the question, so he chose a pile of richly

embroidered cushions stacked in a corner.

Trendavi waddled over to him. “What of our city?”

“It’s been restored to you. You got it back.” Trendavi

accepted this information solemnly. Then he bowed

before Jon-Tom, who was too exhausted to tell him

not to, and went off to tell the other members of the


Opiode had paced the length of the room, sniffing

THE MoJcswr or TUX MAOicxiur 307

at the chilled air. Now he peered down at the

speltsinger out of wise, knowing eyes.

“Death has been in this place. You called it forth?”

“No, not me. Markus did it- I don’t think he knew

what he was doing when he did it. See, he’d died in

the other world. My world. He escaped by being

thrown through to here. Death had been looking for

him ever since.”

“So in his anger and greed he called up his own

fate,” Opiode murmured. “Justice.” He sniffed again.

“There has been much magic worked here this night.

Great magic.”

“I don’t know how great it was”—Jon-Tom rubbed

his face with both hands—”but 1 feel like I’ve just had

the shit stomped out of me by an angry elephant.”

Quorly put a comforting paw on hisr shoulder.

** ‘Tis done with, spellsinger. ‘Tis all over now.”

A voice from across the room drew their eyes.

“Hey, you lot, look at me!” Mudge was sitting on

the throne, his short legs a foot above the floor, both

arms resting on the carved armrests. “Oi, I’m Emper-

or o’ Quasequa, 1 am, and you louts can all pay me

*omage.” He grinned down at Splitch. “Ladies first.

o’ course.”

Jon-Tom spoke casually. “That is precisely where

Markus was sitting when Death itself took him.”

Mudge’s legs abruptly stopped swinging. “You don’t

say. If that’s supposed to scare me, why, it don’t.” He

hopped down from the seat. ” ‘Tis a mite chilly up

there, though. Not really to me taste.” He retreated

in haste.

“Then there’s nothing more for us to worry about,”

said Memaw.

“Well, there is one thing,” Jon-Tom mused. “You

all seem to have forgotten that we have a revolution-

minded dragon running loose in the Quorumate’s

tower levels.”

Alan Dean Porter


“Is that a problem?’* Domurmur frowned. “If he is

your friend, can’t you tell him to leave us in peace?”

“He’ll leave you in pieces if he finds out what kind

of government you’re running. You’re going to have

to move to eliminate bribery and corruption, stamp

out the blatant buying of public office.”

Selryndi sputtered a reply. “But that’s impossible!

How else do you govern?”

Jon-Tom grinned up at him. “I should let Falameezar

instruct you, but I’ll talk to him and see if we can’t

work out some kind of compromise that will satisfy

all the concerned parties.”

“We thank you,” a relieved Trendavi said humbly.

So Falameezar was permitted to run a political

reeducation center on the shore of Isle Quase, and

the citizens were taught not to run in fear from his

presence. Before too much time went by he was no

longer frightening them, only boring them to death

with his droning recitations of Marxist ideology. De-

spite his threats they began to drift away, and even

the city troops couldn’t force them to stay and listen.

As Cherjal the innkeeper put it one day, “I’d

rather bee fried than forced to leesten to that

garbage anymore!”

So Falameezar swam off one evening in search of

more willing converts, bidding Jon-Tom and his friends

adieu, singing the “Internationale” as he disappeared

into a sunset which was, appropriately enough that

evening, bright red.

It was the following night that Jon-Tom was com-

pelled to go with a group of grim-faced police to the

end of an empty municipal pier. At the far end of

the pier was a large pile of fur. The pile sported a

bunch of eyes, many of which were closed or bloodshot,

an indistinguishable dutch of arms and legs, and

reeked of liquor.

The sergeant of police was a three-foot-tall cavy,



short and testy. He gestured at the pile. “These your


“Uh, yes sir.”

“Well, do something with them. We had to shovel

them out of the Capering Gibbon tavern. They were

being drunk and disorderly and obnoxious.”

“Is that so oad? They did help save your city from

the rule of Markus the Ineluctable, you know.”

“Aw, that was weeks ago,” said the sergeant. “Since

then they’ve busted up half of what they helped save,

insulted most of the ladies and some of the males,

parlied until all hours in quiet zones, and generally

made a spectacular nuisance of themselves.”

One lump of fur wiggled out of the pile and

focused rheumy eyes on the sergeant. “Who’re you

callin’ a nuisance, you sorry-lookin’, worm-infested

lump o’ snake crap?”

“Mudge, watch your mouth!” The otter twisted

’round to squint up at him.

“Hiya, mate! Say, where was you the other night?

You missed a hell of a party.”

The cavy looked up at the much taller Jon-Tom, its

nose twitching in distaste- “This party has been going

on for a month now, and the patience of the Quo-

rum is at its end. So in gratitude for what you have

done for the city ofQuasequa, it was decided to send

you safely on your way.” He gestured at the pile of

‘otters. “We dumped them here, more or less intact.

See that they don’t come back.”

/’I’m sorry if they’ve caused you any trouble,”

Jon-Tom told him apologetically. The cavy threw

him a sideways glance.

“Trouble? Oh, no trouble, no trouble at all. At

least three dozen of my best people are stuck in

infirmaries all around the city because of run-ins

with your friends here.” He jerked a tiny thumb

Alan Dean Foster


toward the pile. “You sort ’em out any way you want

to. Just keep ’em out of my Jurisdiction, okay?”

Jon-Tom waited until the police had left the pier.

Then he gazed down at the pile of fuzz. “Aren’t you

all ashamed of yourselves? Aren’t you disgusted? You

win the gratitude of an entire population, and then

you throw it back in their faces.”

Sasswise appeared, waving her sword dangerously

about. “Nobody better not throw nothin* at mel”

“Ow!” Drortch emerged, flaring at her cousin.

“You stick me with that again, you sodden slut, and

I’ll pull your tail out by its roots!”

“You and wot army, bitch?”

The two of them went at it enthusiastically, biting

and kicking and pulling fur. The distraction was

energetic enough to bestir their companions to action.

The hill unpiled. Knorckle crawled weakly to the

edge of the pier and proceeded to vomit violently

into the Lake of Sorrowful Pearls.

Jon-Tom stood and watched, shaking his head in

despair. Then he said something he regretted more

than anything else he’d said since he’d left the rela-

tive sanity of Clothahump’s tree.

“What am I going to do with you?”

A drunken Memaw gazed up at him, “Now, don’t

you worry, young fan… man, because we’ve taken a

vote on thish, and we decided that we couldn’t possi-

bly think of letting you make that nasty old trip all

the way back up to these Bellwoodsies you come

from all by yourselves.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Jon-Tom said quickly. “I

mean. I appreciate the offer, but Mudge and I

managed to make it down here by ourselves, and we

can make it home the same way.” He looked around

wildly for support.

A head appeared. “More company the better, mate,”

declared a thoroughly sozzled Mudge.



Weaving, drunken oUers gathered around the dis-

traught spellsinger, cheering and waving their swords

about with complete disregard for the bodily integri-

ty of their neighbors.

“Aye, mate.. .We’re with you all the bayway!.. .Glad

to come along!.. .Three cheers for the spullspung-


Jon-Tom dodged a sword stroke that came perilously

near taking a chunk out of his thigh. He found

himself being backed toward the otters’ boat, which

the police had thoughtfully tied up at the end of

the pier.

Mudge lurched along in front, one arm around

Quorly, the other around Sasswise. “It’ll be fun,

mate, to ‘ave a little good company goin’ ‘ome. Besides.

I’d like for me friends ‘ere to meet Clothagrump.”

He leaned over to whisper to Quorly. “This ‘ere wizbiz

‘as got ‘imself an apprentice name o’ Sorbl who can

conjure up the best damn batch o’ ‘omemade ‘ootch

I you never tasted, luv. Burn the linin’ right out o’

your bloomin’ throat.”

Quorly pressed tight against him. “Sounds wonder-

ful. Mudgey.”

“No, no,” Jon-Tom told them, pleading desperately,

| “you don’t understand. Clothahump is a very serious,

sober-minded sorcerer. It’s important that he see me

in the same light or he won’t send me home someday.”

“Then we’ll get along fine, Jon-Tome… Tom,” said

Wupp happily, “because we’re damn sure serious

about not stayin’ sober.”

Paws reached forward and lifted the protesting

spellsinger, carried him down into the boat. Hands

bent to oars, and after some initial confusion, the

boat began to slide out onto the Lake of Sorrowful

Pearls. Drortch launched into a spirited if slightly

sloppy rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat!” The

melody was quickly taken up by her companions and

312 Alan Dean Foster

the boat was soon producing enough noise to attract I

every water-going predator between Quasequa and i

the river Tailaroam. E

jon-Tom lay in the bottom of the boat and won-

dered if maybe Markus the Ineluctable hadn’t been

the lucky one.

Categories: Alan Dean Foster