When Esk, a young ogre-nymph-human, began his pilgrimage to the Good Magician Humfrey to rid himself of a seductive demoness, little did he know it would become a mission of mercy. A running river paradise and its harmless inhabitants were perishing in the wrathful wake of a greedy demon horde. Now it is up to Esk and his companions--a beautiful winged centaur named Chex and a brave burrower Called Volney--to search Xanth's treacherous reaches, gathering together a mind-boggling company of creatures to defend the precious Vale of the Vole. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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March 01, 2000
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Excerpt from Vale of the Vole by Piers Anthony
It wasn't always easy, being the son of an ogre and a nymph. Sometimes the ogre started smashing things just for the joy of it, or squeezing the juice from stones one-handed, making an awful mess. Sometimes the nymph was rather empty-minded, or threw a tantrum. That was why Esk had made this cosy hideout that no one else knew about. Whenever things became too difficult at home, he came here to relax and unwind. He loved his parents, but there was virtue in solitude too.
He paused to look about and listen carefully. He didn't want any creature of Xanth, tame or wild, seeing him enter, because then the location would be no secret, and sooner or later his folks would learn of it, and his privacy would be lost.
His hideout was in the hollow trunk of a dead beerbarrel tree. He had been lucky: he had been in the vicinity in the month of AwGhost, when barrel trees gave up the ghost if they were going to, and had seen the spirit departing. "Aw, Ghost!" he had exclaimed in the classic ogre manner, and that had enchanted the tree so that he could take over the husk without creating a local commotion. He had cut a door in the fat trunk that sealed tightly so that it didn't show from outside, and made vents so that the steamy beer smell could dissipate; his mother, Tandy, would never understand if he came home reeking of beer! Then he had set straw in the bottom, and brought in pillows from a nearby pillow bush, and carved decorative scenes in the walls, and made it perfect. He was rather proud of himself; his only regret was that he could not afford to boast of his accomplishment, because of the necessity for secrecy.
All seemed clear. He hooked his nails into the crevice and pulled the door open. It was a small door, with an irregular outline, so that its contour was not obvious. He ducked down to step through, then drew it carefully closed behind. He stepped across the floor and dropped onto his nest of pillows.
Esk jumped. "Who said that?" he demanded.
"Get your fat mule off me!" The voice came from below.
He looked but saw only pillows. "My fat what?"
"Your fat donkey!" the voice snapped. "Pony, horse, jackass, whatever--off!"
Esk finally got a glimmer of the word that was being sought. He got quickly off the pillows. "Where are you?"
The pillow shifted outline. A mouth formed in its center. "Here, you oaf! What did you think you were doing, putting gross anatomy like that in my face?"
"Never mind. Just don't do it again, moron."
"But pillows are supposed to be--"
"Oh? Did you ever ask the pillows' opinion about that?"
"Well, actually, no, but--"
"So there, imbecile! Now get out and let me sleep."
Esk got out. Then, as he wended his way home, he pondered. How had he been able to talk to a pillow? He knew of only one person who could talk to an object, and that was the King of Xanth, Dor. Since it was generally understood that talents did not repeat, except in the case of the curse fiends, that meant that it wouldn't be Esk's talent. Beside that, he already had a talent: that of protesting. Sometimes his mother said he protested too much, but she did not deny it was magic. Since no one had two magic talents, that, too, eliminated the possibility of talking to inanimate things.
Finally he worked it out. He was not the smartest person, being quarter ogre, but he never let go of a problem, being half human, and usually was able to come to some kind of settlement, however crude. It wasn't his magic, but the pillow's magic. He must have picked a special pillow, without realizing: one that was alive. All he needed to do was take it back out to the pillow bush and exchange it for another, and his problem would be solved.
Reassured, he continued on toward home, having forgotten whatever problem had brought him to his hideout. As he neared it he smelled the delicious odor of purple bouillon. That meant that his father, Smash, had gone into his full ogre guise and foraged for the makings. Smash was actually only half ogre, for Esk's grandparents on that side had been Crunch Ogre and an actress from the curse fiends. But when Smash got ogreish, no one could tell him from a full ogre; he swelled up horrendously and burst out of his trousers. Tandy, however, being of nymphly stock, preferred Smash as a man, so usually that was what he seemed to be.
Esk could not voluntarily turn ogre, but when he got mad enough or desperate enough he did develop some ogre strength. It never lasted long, but of course it didn't need to; one strike by an ogreishly-powered fist could pulverize the trunk of a rock maple tree. Similarly, he was normally inept at acting, but when he really had to he could become temporarily proficient. That was his heritage from his curse fiend grandmother. Most of the time it was his human heritage that dominated, since he was part human through both of his parents. He was a pretty ordinary person, with gray eyes and nondescript brown hair. He often wished he were otherwise, but really had no choice; he was obviously not destined for any sort of greatness.
But there was no use worrying about that: there was purple bouillon to be eaten!
Two days later, being bored, Esk returned to his hideout. He entered and checked the pillows. They all looked normal. "Which one of you is the live one?" he inquired, but had no answer.
He shrugged. He picked up the whole mass of them and took them out to the pillow bush, unceremoniously dumping them beside it. Then he picked several new ones. He had to do this periodically anyway, so they didn't get dirty and stale. He carried these to his tree and plopped them down inside.
He hesitated, then eased himself down on them. Contrary to what the living pillow had said, his posterior was not fat; in retrospect he wished he had corrected the pillow about that matter. But he always thought up the smart responses way too late. That, again, was part of his heritage: neither ogres nor nymphs were known for their quickness of wit.
He was hungry, so he brought out a pie he had picked some time ago. It was a humble pie, and they were always best when properly seasoned. This one was decked with sodden raisins, and had a crust that was rocklike, while its main body seemed to be decomposing. It was definitely ready for consumption.
He brought it to his mouth and took an ogreish bite. His teeth came down, dug in--and the pie erupted in his face. Raisins popped out and flew at his eyes, and the crust writhed against his lips. "Get your ugly cat out of here!" the pie exclaimed.
"My ugly what?" Esk asked, startled.
"Your ugly kitten, feline, grimalkin, tabby--"
"Oh, you mean my ugly puss?" he inquired, catching on.
"Your ugly whatever," the pie agreed, forming a wide mouth. "Just what did you think you were doing, ogreface?"
"Ogreface?" Esp repeated, appreciating the compliment. Then he realized that the pie probably hadn't meant it that way. "I was trying to--"
"Oh you were, were you! Well, don't do it again!"
"You never asked the pie whether it wanted to be chewed on, did you?"
"But it's humble pie! It's meant to be eaten!"
"A likely story. Now get your dim-witted face out of here so I can rest."
"Listen, pieface, this is my hideout!" Esk said, developing a smidgeon of heat. "I just tossed out an obnoxious pillow, and I'll do the same with you! You sure aren't very humble!"
"You just try to toss this cookie, and you'll be sorry, bean-brain!"
That did it. Esk carried the pie to the door, pushed the door open, and skated the disk out into the forest. Then he plumped down on his bed of pillows for a snooze.
It was a moderately cool day, and while true ogres loved cold weather, Esk didn't. He cast about until he found the tattered old blanket he had salvaged for this purpose, and drew it over him.
The blanket writhed and wrapped itself around his feet. Then it squeezed his legs, and inched up his torso, constricting as it did.
"Hey!" Esk exclaimed.
"Hay yourself, moo-brain!" the blanket said, forming a mouth on its surface. But it did not pause in its squeezing; Esk's legs were getting uncomfortable.
Abruptly concerned, he thrust his legs apart, the ogre strength coming to him. The blanket tore--but then it fogged and rose up as a flying thing, hovering before him. "Listen, dung-head," its mouth said, "now I'm really going to make you sorry!"
But Esk's ogre dander was up. He grabbed the blanket with both hands. "We'll see about that, threadface!" Then he tore it asunder.
The pieces fogged again. The whole thing became vapor. This time it re-formed into the shape of a demoness. "You're stronger than you look, bug-wit. But how long do you think you can oppose me?"
"What wit?" Esk asked, confused again.
"Flea-wit, ant-wit, chigger-wit--"
"Whatever. Why don't you answer the question?"
Now at last Esk caught on. "The pillow--the pie--they were all you! You assumed their forms!"
"Of course I did, genius," she agreed. "I was trying to get rid of you gently. But now it's no more Miss Nice Gal. I'm going to twist you into a pretzel and feed you to a dragon." In her natural form she had arms and hands, which were now reaching for him.
"Dragons don't eat pretzels," he said, realizing he was in trouble. Demons (or demonesses) were notorious; they had inhuman strength and no conscience, and they could pass right through solid walls. If he had realized what he was dealing with, he would have left her alone. Now it was too late.
"I'll jam you down its mouth anyway," she said grimly. "Maybe it will forgive me in a century or two." The hands closed on his neck and squeezed.
But this stimulated his ogre strength to full potency. Contrary to popular lore, ogres didn't really like getting twisted into pretzels, whatever they might do to others. Esk grabbed her wrists and wrenched them apart. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"I am the Demoness Metria," she replied, fogging again. Her arms and hands reappeared at his throat, leaving his own hands empty. "DeMetria for short. Who are you?"
Esk grabbed her wrists again, and wrenched them outward again. "I am Eskil Ogre, and I'm not going to let you choke me."
"That's what you think, mortal," she said. Her substance fogged yet again and re-formed, and this time her arms were linked by a length of thin rope. She hooked this over his head and looped it around his neck. "You can't get this off before you're done for."
"No!" Esk gasped.
Now she seemed startled. "No?" Her grip relaxed.
Esk balled a fist and smashed her in the face. The blow was solid, but her head simply folded back on the neck, as if hinged, then snapped back into place as he withdrew his arm. She looked slightly aggravated.
"No," he repeated. "I protest it."
She reconsidered. "Well, maybe not. I suppose it would be pointless to kill you; your body would only stink up the region, and I don't care to haul it far enough so the smell wouldn't carry." The cord dissolved into vapor and coalesced about her arms; it was evidently part of her substance.
"Well, I'm going to throw you out of here!" Esk said, his ogre aspect still in force.
"I'd like to see you try it, mundaneface."
Mundaneface! Her insults were getting more effective. That kept his ogre aspect in force. "I'll try it!"
He tried it. He grabbed her about the middle and hauled her off her feet. Then he paused. Her body was humanoid and naked and voluptuous, and was now tightly pressed against him. He had been distracted by her words and actions, but now was noticing her shape. This was a new experience.
"Well, now," she said, smiling. "I didn't realize that you wanted to be friendly. Just let me get your clothes off--"
He dropped her. "Just get out!" he exclaimed, disgruntled.
"Forget it, junior. I found this place and it's mine."
"I made it and it's mine!" he retorted.
She arched an eyebrow. "You made a beerbarrel tree?"
"Well, not that, but I adapted it after it gave up its spirit. That's close enough."
"Well, I like it, but I don't like you, so I'm going to get rid of you."
She paused, studying him. "Ah, that's your magic, isn't it! When you say 'no,' you stop a creature from doing what she intends. That's why I'm changing my mind, against my better judgment."
"Yes." His talent was not exactly magician class, but it served him in good stead when he needed it.
"So I'd better not make any more threats because you'll just say no to them," she continued. "But I'll bet it isn't all inclusive. You can't say 'no' to the whole category of what I might try to do to get you out, but you can say it to each individual thing as I try it."
"Yes." She was catching on with dismaying rapidity. Obviously there was no ogre blood in her lineage.
"So I'll just have to find a way to make you want to leave," she concluded. "I can't hurt you directly, but you can't hurt me either, so we're even, for now."
"Why are you here?" he asked plaintively.
"Because it's getting too annoying back where I come from," she said. "The hummers, you know."
"Never mind. Mortals can't hear them, generally. But they drive demons crazy. They've gotten really bad recently, there in the Vale of the Vole, despite all we've done to eradicate them. So I've had enough; I've moved to where I can be comfortable, after my fashion."
"But you're trying to take the place where I can be comfortable, after my fashion," he protested.
"So sue me."
"It's a mundane term. It means 'What are you going to do about it, stink-nose?'"
"I don't understand. Is Sue a girl?"
She laughed, her whole torso jiggling. "I suppose we're stuck here together, junior. Might as well make the best of it. Maybe we'll even get to like each other, though that may be stretching a point. Come, let me initiate you into the ways of demon sex." She advanced on him.
"No!" he exclaimed.
She stopped. "There's that magic of yours again! I really wasn't going to hurt you, you know, this time. I can be very affectionate, when I pretend to be. Let me demonstrate."
"No." He was afraid of her now, as he had not been before, and ashamed for his fear. It wasn't because he thought she would use a pretext to get close to him and then try to choke him again; it was because he was afraid she would do exactly what she threatened, and that he would like it. He didn't trust a demon-stration.
She eyed him speculatively. "How old are you, Esk?"
"And I'm a hundred and sixteen, but who's counting? You're old enough, in mortal terms, and I'm young enough, in immortal terms. Why don't you let me buy this den from you, and pay for it with experience? I can show you exactly what it's all about, so that you will never have to embarrass yourself by being clumsy with a mortal girl."
Esk barged by her, dived out the door, and headed for home. Only when he was well away from the hideout did he ask himself why. Was he afraid that she would somehow lead him into some much worse embarrassment than he could guess? Or that he thought that what she offered was simply wrong? But was it wrong? He wasn't sure.
He thought about asking his parents about the matter. But then he'd have to tell them about his hideout, which he didn't want to do. Also, he suspected that they just wouldn't understand. His mother had never said much about it, but he understood that a male demon had once approached her, and that she had been horrified. He could guess how she would react to news of a demoness's approach to her son. She might even throw one of her tantrums at him, and that would hurt. His father loved those tantrums, because they reminded him of ogre slaps, but an ogre slap could knock a grown tree askew or put a network of cracks in a rock.
So he kept silent. Maybe Metria would tire of his hideout and go away. Demons were known to be inconstant, after all.
Several days later he ventured again to the hideout. He entered cautiously. There was no sign of the demoness. But he knew that she could be concealed as anything; only time would tell whether she really was gone.
He sat on the pillows, and there was no outcry. He shook out his blanket, with no protest. He found a piece of redberry pie and ate it without event. He began to hope.
It was surprising how quickly boredom set in. One thing about his experience with Metria: it had been interesting, in more than one way. Now that it was too late, he wondered whether he had been mistaken in turning down her offer. She might have provided him with some phenomenal experience!
He dug out his game of pebbles. His collection of stones had served well in past times to while away dull hours. They were of several different colors, and he had fashioned a game by drawing them out of the bag one at a time and setting them down on the floor in patterns. Each stone had to be set next to one of its own color to form a line or curve. The object was for one color to circle another. He might draw several red stones in succession, not looking at each until it was clear of the bag, and Red would make progress against White; then White would produce several and reverse the advantage. Blue and Green and Gray were also in there fighting. Sometimes the colors made alliances, ganging up against each other. The game could get quite exciting, as he animated the personalities of the colors in his mind. The patterns could become quite convoluted.
He brought out the first stone. It was glistening black. He set it down, starting the game.
"Hey, freak, what do you think you're doing?" the stone asked.
He snatched it up and thrust it back into the bag and twisted the opening tight, trying to seal it in. But smoke issued through the material and swirled before him, and soon Metria was there. "I thought you'd given up and left it to me," she remarked.
"I thought you'd given up," he retorted.
"Demons never give up unless they want to. Come on, I really want this place. Can't we deal?"
"No." But then his foolish curiosity overcame him. "Why are you so insistent on this place, instead of just becoming a bird and perching on a branch or something?"
"This place is secluded and comfortable, and other creatures don't know about it. We demons need to spend most of our time in solid state, and it's easiest to do it while sleeping, so a good private place is valuable."
"I thought demons didn't need to sleep."
"We don't need to sleep, mortal. But we can sleep if we choose, and often we do. This is a perfect sleeping place, so I mean to have it."
"Well, I don't mean to let you have it."
Her lips formed a pout. "I'm trying to be nice about it, Esk. It's an effort. Suppose I give you two great experiences?"
"Sex and death."
"You already tried to kill me!"
"I mean the other way around. You can kill me, after you enjoy me."
"Demons can't be killed." But he found himself guiltily intrigued.
"We can't die, but we can do extremely realistic emulations of dying. You can choke me, and I'll gag and turn purple and my eyeballs will bulge way out and I'll struggle with diminishing force until finally I sag down and stop breathing and my body turns cold. It will be just like throttling a living woman."
"Ugh," Esk said, revolted.
"Well, what do you want, then? Three great experiences? Name your stupid price."
He was tempted to ask about the third experience, but decided that he probably would not like it any better than the second. "No."
"I'll even throw in the first one free," she said. "Just so you can fully appreciate what I offer. I can assume any form you wish, just to make it interesting. Is there any particular mortal girl you've been wanting to--"
"No!" he cried.
"Look, there's no obligation! I just want to demonstrate my good faith! I really want this den, without getting bothered all the time. I know an awful lot that you could hardly learn in a year, let alone in a day, and--"
"Don't be so stuffy." She inhaled, making her breasts stand out splendidly, and leaned toward him.
"I said no three times," Esk said querulously. "Why aren't you stopping?"
"Because I'm not doing, I'm persuading," she said. "And you want to be persuaded, don't you, Esk?"
He was afraid that anything he said at this point would be a lie. He lurched out of the hideout, ashamed of himself. He had to get rid of the demoness, before she succeeded in corrupting him!
He stayed away a full ten days this time. But he felt out of sorts without the use of his hideout, and realized that he was actually giving it up to her without a fight. He had to go there and pester her until she left, instead of allowing her to do it to him.
He braced himself and went to the beerbarrel tree. All was quiet, outside and in, but he knew this was no certain indication of her absence. He sat on the pillows, shook out the blanket, ate a scrap of cheese, dumped all the colored stones out on the floor, and poked everything he could think of. There was no response from any of it. Could she really be gone this time? Or was she merely lying low, waiting until he relaxed, before appearing with some new offer? How many such offers could he resist, before he succumbed to the temptation. How many did he want to resist?
Already she was corrupting him, and she wasn't even trying!
Still, if she never manifested, then the hideout was his, even if she was here. Except that if she should be watching and listening to everything he did here, how could he ever really relax? He had to be sure she was gone, and not just out doing some temporary mischief elsewhere.
He heard something, faint in the distance outside the tree. He held his breath, listening.
That was his mother's voice! She was searching for him, calling his name, and if he didn't show up soon, she was apt to discover this hideout! He scrambled out and ran to her, not directly but in a roundabout way, so as not to give away the location of his secret place.
"What is it, Mother?" he called when the direction was suitable.
Tandy turned to face him. She had kept much of her nymphly figure, and was a pretty figure of a women. There was the corruption of the demoness again: How could he presume to notice such a thing about his own mother?
"Oh, Eskil," she said. "You must come home right away! It's horrible!"
He was gripped by sudden alarm. "What's horrible?"
"Your father--some other ogre smashed him, I think, and--"
His alarm became horror. "He's hurt?"
"He may not survive the hour! We have to get some healing elixir before it's too late!"
"I know where there's a spring!" he cried. "I'll go get it!" He took the little bottle she carried, and charged off through the forest, his heart pounding from more than the exertion. His father, dying!
He reached the spring and swooped with the bottle dipping out the healing elixir. Then he ran back toward the house.
He charged in. "Where is he?" he cried, panting. Tandy turned from the table, where she was preparing leftover soup. "Where is who, dear?" she inquired mildly.
"Father! Smash Ogre! I have the elixir!"
Smash emerged from another room. He was in his human mode. "You called me, son?"
Esk looked from one to the other. "You--you're not hurt!"
Tandy's brow furrowed. "Whatever gave you the idea your father was hurt, Esk?"
"But you were just telling me, out in the forest--"
"I have not left the house all afternoon, dear," she said reprovingly.
"But--" But obviously it was true. His mother never interrupted leftover soup for anything short of a dire emergency, and it seemed there had been not even a mild emergency. How could he have thought--?
Then he understood. Metria! She could emulate anything or anyone! She had pretended to be his mother, and he had been completely fooled.
"I--I guess I had a dream," he said awkwardly. "I thought Father was hurt, so I fetched some elixir--"
"That was nice of you, dear," Tandy said, and returned her attention to her soup.
"But save the elixir," Smash said. "Never can tell when that stuff'll be handy."
"Uh, sure," Esk said, looking for a stopper for the vial. But now the vial fuzzed into vapor, and the elixir spilled to the floor. What a fool he had been!
Next day he returned to the hideout. "Metria!" he bawled. "Show yourself, you damned demoness!"
She appeared. "Why, I do believe you are having a change of mind," she said. "You never complimented me like that before."
"You made me think my father was dying!" he accused her.
"Of course, Esk. If one thing doesn't work, I try another. How else am I to be left in peace here?"
"You mean you're going to keep on doing things like that? Making me think my folks are in trouble?"
"Why of course not, Esk! Obviously that didn't work either, because here you are again."
He didn't trust this. "Then what--"
"I'll just have to do something real to your folks, so you won't have time to bother me."
It took only a moment for him to grasp that, despite his quarter-ogre heritage. "No!"
"That's a category denial, Esk. You know you can't enforce that. I'll get your folks one way or another, in time. You can't watch them both all the time."
He leaped at her. She started to dematerialize, then reconsidered. Instead she met him, flinging her arms about him. "But I'm still willing to deal for the den, and even to give you the free sample, if--"
The force of his leap was carrying them on, and now they landed together on the pillows. Metria wrapped her legs about his body and her arms about his head, hauling him in to her for a kiss. "I'm really being more than reasonable, for my kind," she whispered against his cheek. "All I want is to be left alone in my den."
"My den!" he gasped.
"Which I am offering a generous price for," she said. "Most men would grasp most eagerly at the chance, not to mention the flesh. Now just let me get these clothes off you--"
He wrenched himself away from her. "No!"
She sighed. "Well, no one can say I didn't try. I really have nothing against your folks, because they don't even know about the den. But if that's what it takes to--"
"No! I'll--I'll leave you alone! You leave them alone!"
"Why how nice of you, Esk," she said. "You are becoming reasonable. I shall be glad to leave all of you alone, as long as you do not come here."
Esk got to his feet, turned around, and walked away from her. He knew he had lost, and it galled him, but there seemed to be no other way.
Could he trust her to leave his folks alone? The more he thought about it, as he walked, the more he distrusted it. The demoness might decide she liked the house better than the tree, and act against the family anyway. Demons had no conscience; that was their great strength and weakness.
He had to got rid of Metria. Only then could he be quite sure that his family was safe. But how? Every time he tried to make her move, she tried to seduce him, or worse, and she seemed a lot closer to victory than he. Where could he find the answer?
Then he realized where. He would go ask the Good Magician Humfrey! Humfrey knew everything, and for one year's service would answer any question. It was a steep price, but would be worth it to save his family from the possible malice of the demoness.
His decision made, Esk felt better. Tomorrow he would start his trip to the Good Magician's castle.