Much to his surprise, Kelvin has discovered that being the hero named in the prophecy has made him an epic figure in several alternate worlds. Now he is about to learn that his heroic stature also means facing up to old enemies--enemies that refuse to stay dead…
Zoanna, deposed witch-queen of Zud, and Rowforth, sadistic ex-king of Hud, have returned and join forces to seek deadly revenge on Kelvin and his kingdom.
Unfortunately Kelvin is otherwise disposed. To be precise, he is trapped in an unknown frame of reality and about to be fed to the legendary Chimaera--a rather malevolent three-headed creature with the body of a giant crab, the tail of a scorpion, and a particularly ferocious appetite for human flesh…
Meanwhile Rowforth has seized the throne of his double, Rufurt of Kelvinia, and launched a senseless war that will drown the kingdoms in blood…
Twenty-one times New York Times Bestselling Author
Piers Anthony is one of the world's most prolific and popular authors. His fantasy Xanth novels have been read and loved by millions of readers around the world, and have been on the New York Times Best Seller list twenty-one times.
Although Piers is mostly known for fantasy and science fiction, he has written several novels in other genres as well, including historical fiction, martial arts, and horror. Piers lives with his wife in a secluded woods hidden deep in Central Florida.Robert Margroff
Robert Margroff and Piers Anthony have been collaborators since the late 1960s when they first wrote The Ring, a science fiction novel in 1968. In 1970, they wrote E.S.P. Worm, another sci-fi novel. In the 1980's they wrote their longest collaboration, the Kelvin series: Dragon's Gold, Serpent's Silver, Chimaera's Copper, Orc's Opal and Mouver's Magic.
Should swell the ranks of Anthony's already vast audience.Kirkus Reviews
She knew where she was going, if only she could get there. She had prevailed on the foolish John Knight to bring her this far; now she had to go on alone.
She stepped off the raft and sank into the dark water. One arm was useless, but she could still move the other, and her legs. She swam as well as she was able, down, down toward the bottom, not even trying to hold her breath, for it would only buoy her body. The air in her tired chest squeezed out of her nose and mouth and bubbled up in a silvery stream toward the raft and the confused man. Let him go; his usefulness to her was done. The current would carry him into the dread Flaw.
She found the lock, and managed to drag herself into it. In a moment she came up in air, gasping. She sprawled onto a platform, and finally let her consciousness fade.
Sometime later, in the dead of the eternal night that ruled here, a figure came. It was gross and masculine. “You have returned, Zoanna,” it rasped.
She roused herself. “I need your help, Professor,” she said weakly. “I see you have broken bones. I can heal them. What will you pay?”
She struggled, and managed to turn over, so that she lay on her back. She spread her good arm, and her good legs, and smiled despite the pain.
The figure stared down, interested. It reached out to squeeze a breast, as if checking its freshness. “For how long?”
“I want—I want to go to school, this time,” she said. “To learn sorcery. For as long as it takes.”
“That is long enough.” The figure heaved her up and carried her away.
The wide man had once worn a crown. Now he wore only a torn robe and many bruises as he stepped from the transporter into the empty chamber. This was the world they had come from, he was sure. He had watched from concealment as they climbed the ladder to the ledge. Then he had followed, certain of what he would find: their gateway between worlds.
In the otherwise empty chamber on his home world he had not hesitated before using the transporter to follow. What was there for him at home, now, as a usurped king? Nothing but death at the hands of Broughtmar, his former aide, or some other disgruntled soldier. Or possibly at the hands of Zotannas, his queen’s treach- erous old father. If not death, certainly imprisonment, or life as an outcast. No, there was nothing there for him! Better to plunge boldly into something new, where his chances might be better and could hardly be worse.
Besides, there was something else. It was as if some mysterious impulse drew him along, as if someone were calling him. Someone he wanted very much to meet.
There was a subtle difference between this chamber and the one he had entered. The one on this world had no exit sign. It was cleaner and there were no dusty footprints on the floor. But the smooth sphere-shaped walls were similar, and there was the same magical radiance, that lit the machine and the table holding the parchment.
He hacked, coughed, and rubbed the bruises on his arms, legs, and face. What treachery Broughtmar had shown him! How he would like to go back and destroy the man. Well, someday he might. Meanwhile, he could relax at night by dreaming up torments for his former torture-master. He had thought the man worshiped his master above all men and gods. It showed that no underling could be trusted.
He read the parchment:
To whom it may concern: if you have found this cell, you are a roundear, because only a roundear could penetrate to it without setting off the self-destruct mechanism.
I am Mouvar—and I am a roundear.
But because the natives look with disfavor on aliens, I masked my ears so that I could work among them without hindrance. I used the technology of my home frame to set things straight, then retired, for it was lonely. I set up the prophecy of my return, or the appearance of any roundear, to facilitate better acceptance in future centuries. The tools of my frame are here, and you may use them as you find necessary.
If you wish to contact me directly, seek me in my home frame, where I will be in suspended animation. Directions for using the Flaw to travel to the frame of your choice are in the book of instructions beside this letter. Please return any artifacts you borrow. Justice be with you.
The man who had been king looked around and saw no artifacts. There was only the closet like transporter, the table, the parchment, and the instruction book. He read the book. Phew! There was extraordinary power here! He could change the settings, and—
No, it was better not to tempt fate further. He wanted to leave no evidence of his presence at this time. Later, when he had a better notion of the situation outside the chambers, he might return and do something. All in good time. He was amazed at what he had learned already.
Smiling with satisfaction at the change in his fortune, he crossed the chamber to the big, round metal door. He pushed the lever. The door opened onto a ledge above an underground river—a complete change from the high cliff at the entrance to the chamber on his own world. The surface of the water was eerily lit by luminous lichen on the rock walls. And there, as if specifically placed for him, was waiting one small boat.
Former King Rowforth of Hud, the kingdom in the other frame, smiled his crudest smile and clapped his big, powerful hands. Again he felt that mysterious influence, as if this had been prearranged. Ordinarily he would be suspicious of such a thing, but in this case he was thankful, because he suspected that it had saved his life and freedom. Maybe it was destined: he was fated to survive and dominate. If that smooth-skinned boy, Kelvin Knight Hackleberry, could claim a prophecy applied to him, why could not he, a legitimate king, have a preordained destiny? All his life he had believed himself destined to conquer, so why not here first, instead of his home world? Might he not eventually conquer all kingdoms in all worlds? The notion was intoxicating!
There came a kind of laughter in his head. Rowforth jumped. It was like his wife’s voice, his queen, yet also quite unlike hers. This was the sound of victory and cruelty, while his wife was a submissive and kind creature, fool that she was. Insanity? No, surely not, for he was a king, and a king could not be insane. It had to be some kind of magic.
With rising excitement, the king launched the boat on the somber river, got into it, and applied himself to the oars. The wood handles, though splintery, fit his hands as well as those he had used at home. He put his back into it, eager to see what destiny had in store for him.
Ahead was a black, roaring falls with deep, deep darkness and stars and moving points of light. This was no ordinary night, he knew; it was the dread Flaw! He bypassed it, fighting the current. He knew he didn’t want to get swept into that horrendous abyss.
He guided the boat away from the walls and out into the middle of the water as he rounded the bend. He was getting near to some- thing now, and he was feeling it. He believed it would be his aid to destiny. His aid to conquest.
Suddenly he stopped rowing. He seemed to have no choice. What was guiding him?
He gazed down into the water, seeing nothing but his own bruised features. In this world there was a king who looked like him in a country not unlike Hud. That king, unlike himself, had pointed ears. He knew this without knowing how he knew it, or questioning its validity. Here in this world existed a king whose place he might take, if only he hid his ears.
He stood up in the boat, not knowing what he was doing, and peered deep, deep into the murky water. Nothing, not even fish. Only the dim reflections of himself and the boat, and the rock walls gliding by, illuminated by the lichen.
Yet again he felt that mysterious impulse. He took a deep breath and dived. Swimming competently, conserving his breath and energy, he stroked down. Truly he was in the hands of destiny, now.
He dived deeper, deeper, though his body was growing hungry for air. His arms and legs worked steadily, refusing to be halted by fatigue. Silvery bubbles floated from the corners of his mouth. Into a tunnel, its smooth walls coated with more glowing lichen. He had better be going somewhere, because no way could he turn, let alone reach the boat again before drowning.
Then up, up, and suddenly the water parted. Air! He gasped, his chest working like a bellows, pumping in the air. That had been close! Yet he had been guided, somehow.
As his panting eased and his vision cleared, he realized that he was in a chamber not dissimilar from the one he had recently left. There was a woman here, holding a crystal ball. She had very red hair, and eyes incredibly green. Zanaan, his docile queen!
But there were two things distinctly different about her. This woman had no bruises, and her expression was not at all submissive. Also, her ears were pointed.
Pointed ears? Zanaan?
Rufurt, king of all Kelvinia, rode his favorite mare to the ruins of his old palace. With him were two guards with whom he joked in what was his unkingly yet customary fashion.
Leaving the road, he pulled up by the pile of crumbled, fire- blackened masonry. He dismounted just as if he knew what he was doing. Actually King Rufurt, though a hefty enough man, was the soul of innocuousness, and lacked any real force of decision. That, he realized with a certain mild reflection, might be why they considered him to be a good king. He seldom knew exactly what he was doing, but he depended on good subordinates, and they enabled him to govern the kingdom well.
“Stay here,” he ordered his guards, and walked casually away. The whim that had taken him was unusual, but perhaps he wanted to urinate behind a tree in privacy.
Around him were piles of ashes, blackened timbers, and the broken statues of former kings of Rud. Many a piece of once-valued art was buried here, though no one cared to recover it, remembering the history of this place. His evil Queen Zoanna had wrought horrendous evil here, and it would be a long time before that was forgotten. Almost of their own accord, his feet carried him through the ruins. He went down the three flights of crumbling stairs. There, just as he knew it would be, was the underground river.
Standing there on the final landing, he remembered the words of an ancient prophecy:
A Roundear there Shall Surely be
Born to be Strong, Raised to be Free
Fighting Dragons in his Youth
Leading Armies, Nothing Loth
Ridding his Country of a Sore
Joining Two, then uniting Four
Until from Seven there be One
Only then will his Task be Done
Honored by Many, Cursed by Few
All will know what Roundear can Do
To think the Roundear had come in his reign, and then in the unlikely form of someone who seemed to be but a boy: Kelvin Knight Hackleberry! Kelvin had saved the kingdom, and then saved it again. As the prophecy had foretold, he had joined two kingdoms. Rufurt still ruled, thanks to Kelvin, whose nature was almost as benign as Rufurt’s own, but now he ruled more than twice Rud’s former territory. The merged kingdom was called Kelvinia, after the boy, and Rufurt begrudged him none of that credit. But for Kelvin, Rufurt himself would probably be ignominiously dead now.
Why was he thinking of this, and just why had he climbed down all those awful stairs? His legs ached abominably. He needed to rest, but something screamed at him that he must go back or rue the con- sequence. At the same time he realized that he hadn’t really wanted to climb down these stairs. So why had he done it?
Something went “Click.” Something that had no business being here.
He half turned. As he did, a sudden chill formed somewhere in the region of his heart. It was uncanny what was happening to him. It was something he was sure had never happened before.
She stood there behind him, holding a crystal ball. Her hair was as red as dragon sheen, and her eyes the green of feline magic with sparks like tiny stars. Her pointed ears identified her with a horrifying certainty.
“Zoanna,” he said. “Zoanna, I thought you dead.”
“Yes, one-time king, once my feeble husband. I have returned to reclaim all that I once had and all that has since been gained for me. I am back to rule, Sweet Husband. Back to punish the likes of you, and to destroy the likes of that Hackleberry brat.”
“No! No! You drowned! I know you drowned, and—”
She made a pass over the crystal ball with her hand. A repellent shade of red immediately suffused the crystal.
King Rufurt clutched his chest in sudden agony.
“Yes, yes,” she murmured, her white teeth glistening as she smiled. “Did I ever tell you how pretty your ears are, my erstwhile liege?”
He fell forward, trying vainly to talk. The dock, when he struck it, seemed to be and not to be, while he—
When the king finally emerged from the ruins the sun was set- ting. His face had somehow gotten bruised, though the bruises had the appearance of those acquired days before. His clothes were now soiled, and he wore a stockelcap pulled all the way down over his ears despite the warmth of the day. He wore an expression that was not at all typical for Rufurt: malevolent.
“Your mare, Your Majesty,” said Lomax, the tall guard. Though his voice was controlled, he was upset. This is not right, not right at all. What had happened to the king, this past hour?
The king went to place his foot in the stirrup that was being held for him. A hoof came for him, grazing his hip. The king stumbled and fell. When he rose a moment later there was no mistaking his expression: mean, extremely mean. Lomax had thought he might be mistaken before, but now there was no doubt. How could this be? “What’s the matter with you, idiot?” the king demanded. “Can’t you control a stupid horse?”
The young guardsman swallowed. “Your Majesty—”
The king drew a riding whip from its harness scabbard and lashed the mare across her face. The horse reared, and Lomax was so startled he let go of the reins. The mare took off, running as though for her life.
The king swore, using an oath Lomax had never even heard. “I can’t abide an unruly animal! Catch it and slay it!”
“But Your Majesty—” Lomax started, horrified.
“Do it, idiot!” The whistling lash just missed taking his eye out. Lomax swallowed and ran after the horse. She had stopped some distance away, her white-rimmed eyes as frightened as he himself felt. What is going on here?
“Here, girl, here,” he said, holding out his hand.
The mare let him take the reins. But as he turned to lead her back he saw that the king had drawn a sword. The king intended to kill this beautiful horse! Unbelievable!
Sensing what the man sensed, the mare yanked hard on the reins. This time Lomax deliberately let them slip. The horse ran off.
The king glowered at him. “Never mind, Your Majesty,” Lomax said quickly. “I’ll catch her again. She caught me by surprise; she isn’t usually like this. It may take a little time. Perhaps—” He strove desperately to think of something. “Perhaps you would prefer not to wait. It’s a long ride to the palace. Another horse—”
“Yes,” the king said grimly. “Another horse, in any event.” He spoke roughly to Slatterly, the other guard. “Bring me that roan!”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Slattery said, and obeyed with alacrity.
Slatterly held the reins and the king mounted. The guard handed up the reins.
The king raised his whip and brought it down first on Slatterly and then on the horse. “Get on your own horse. You ride ahead of me!” he ordered. “Fast! I want to reach the palace by nightfall!”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Lomax had never seen Slatterly move so fast before. But Lomax himself was moving fast, pretending he was going to catch and possibly slay the king’s favorite horse.
Hoofbeats, and the king all but rode him down. The roan whirled, raising dust, and the king turned a terrible face down at him. “You, I want you to get that horse!”
“Yes, Your Majesty. Yes, of course.”
“And I want you to ride her.”
Hope leaped suddenly in Lomax’s boyish chest. “Ride her, Your Majesty?”
“Until she drops! Ride her to her death!”
The whip caught him across the face, stingingly, telling him more plainly than words that this was not the same man who had entered the ruins. “You will do as I order! If you don’t, I’ll see you in the torture chamber!”
“But Your Majesty, you haven’t—haven’t got—” He swallowed, knowing that what he most needed to do was shut up.
“Haven’t what?” the king demanded ominously.
“Haven’t a torture chamber,” Lomax said reluctantly.
“That,” the king replied, “will be remedied. Now find that horse, ride her until she drops, then beat her to death. Failure in this will cost you your life in much the same manner!”
Lomax watched the bay whirl as the king rode away after Slatterly. He felt tears welling in his eyes, and knew they weren’t entirely from the sting of the whip.
“What’s gotten into him? What’s gotten into him?” he asked the trees and rocks. He didn’t know and wasn’t certain he wanted to know. Witchcraft? Magic? Something old and evil and ugly? That ruined palace—who knew what evil spirits lurked in there!
But he was only a guardsman. These were, alas, questions his kind was not authorized to ask. But he knew that this was not his king—not the real king, whatever the body was.
There were tears on his face as he went after the mare. It was as though all the good that the roundear had done were now undone, and the bad was returning with a vengeance. How could this happen, so soon after the great victory of the forces of right?
When he caught up to the horse he discovered without surprise that he simply did not have the heart to hurt her, let alone kill her. She was not at fault; she had reacted to the alien nature of the king, being more forthright than the guardsmen dared be. She was too fine an animal to destroy.
He approached the proprietor of a farm where there were a number of horses. “I will trade you this mare for your worst mare of this color and size,” he said. “Provided you keep the transaction secret.”
“For how much gold?” the sharp farmer demanded.
“No gold. An even trade.”
The man studied the mare. He could see that she was as fine a horse as existed in the kingdom. “You stole her?”
This was getting complicated. The truth was better. “She inadvertently offended the king. He ordered me to kill her. I can’t do it. Give me a mare I can kill, and never speak of this.”
The farmer nodded. “Now I understand.” He brought out a scruffy-looking mare. “This one’s ill, and due for slaughter anyway.”
“She’ll do.” Lomax rode off on the new mare. When he reached a suitable place, he dismounted, drew his sword, and stabbed her carefully in the heart, so that she died quickly, without extended suffering. Then he took a whip and lashed the body, leaving stripes all over it. He paid special attention to the head, so that it became unrecognizable. This horse now looked as if it had been cruelly beaten to death. The original scruffiness of the animal only enhanced the effect.
He left the corpse there for others to find, knowing that the news would reach the king soon enough. He walked away, not looking back, thinking that if it were not for a certain lady, and not for his love for his homeland, he would desert for another kingdom. He had no pride in what he had done. He knew he had only reduced the evil somewhat, at great risk to himself. If the living mare were ever recognized—
Late in the day he slunk silently into the royal stable. There he found the groom cursing ceaselessly as he treated the deep welts on the roan.
“Rufurt,” Lomax whispered softly to himself. “Rufurt, good king, where are you and who is this impostor who so boldly wears your face?”