The mysterious prophecy that has shaped the life of Kelvin Knight Hackleberry and his family seems nearly to have run its course.
The Two Kingdoms that were joined by Kelvin to form Kelvinia have now been united with three others, to make a great confederation under the rule of the young twin kings, Kildom and Kildee. Kelvin has earned some time to rest with his family. Charles and Merlain are now twenty years old, and so is Dragon Horace, their brother who is the Great King of all the land.
But the clouds of the last battle are gathering. The evil Professor DeVale and his witch servant Zady had been foiled in their attempt to destroy Kelvin by using his children--their evil plot has led to a stronger, more peaceful land under its rightful rulers.
Now they will try one last time to pervert all that is good in the universe of the frames--and although the Prophecy of Mouvar has been accurate up to now, still there is a chance that evil will prevail.
The stakes are high. The last battle is on.
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.
Monsters and magic's galore, and a satisfying ending for the fans.Kirkus Reviews
This pleasant fantasy adventure possesses the added irony and realism that one expects from Anthony.Publishers Weekly
The ugly old witch’s face did not match her lusciously curved body. Midway up the neck the firm smooth throat became wrinkled chicken skin. There were warts on the beaked face, and gray hairs that contrasted sharply with the smooth nude body. She smelled bad, as if from twenty years of soaking in bird droppings.
She stood in Professor Devale’s study, there before his desk, glaring at him with just the right amount of malignancy.
Professor Devale did not seem to be surprised or disturbed to find such a creature in his study. He looked up from his papers as if slightly bored. “Zady, I understand you lost your head,” he said conversationally. He admired her beauty even beneath its accumulation of filth; of course he found other areas of her anatomy to be of far more interest than her face. Head bowed slightly, carefully repolishing his ever-polished horns, he was as pleased with her as was possible. What displeased him was her failure to conquer the dragon frame and bring him the master key opal.
“You,” Zady spat, producing a smoking drop of spittle, “didn’t come to my rescue! For twenty years I nourished my strength and grew back my body. Now I’m back, I’m strong, and I want your attention.”
“Why, certainly, Zady.” What a spitfire she was! Appropriately, as that red-haired niece of hers had been. He shouldn’t allow such impudence in his office, but there were compensations he would soon extract.
“I want to go back! I want this time to conquer. I want your help!”
“Certainly, Zady. Otherwise you’d not be present.”
“You didn’t help me before!” Zady accused him. “You allowed me to be defeated by those brats!
Twenty years in the dragon frame is a long time! Twenty years of sheltering under a louse-infested bird’s rump! Twenty years gradually growing arms and legs and all the rest! Why, Professor, didn’t you help?”
“Because, my dear Zady,” he said with just a hint of annoyance, “that would have taught you nothing.
You were to conquer, you were to bring me the opal. I provided the means. My participating in your revenge was not in our agreement.”
“But you—” The old hag face frowned in frustration. “You wanted—”
“Yes, and now you have a younger body without resort to shape changing. All you’ll need to change for me is your face. Possibly not always that.”
“You—! You—!” the old hag head mouthed, managing to produce some more smoking spittle.
“Temper, temper, Zady!” the professor admonished. “Remember that I am the teacher. You want to conquer, you must conquer. As before I will provide you with the means. In return, of course, for compensation.”
“You mean—” Smooth hands gestured at smooth body, warm and now virginal. In this respect they understood each other perfectly; their words were mere games.
“Of course, of course. As you say, twenty years in the dragon frame is a long time. But you must not assume, my malignant friend, that I will depart from custom.”
“Why not? Doesn’t Mouvar?”
“Oh, Zady, Zady, how little you know. And with all your centuries! Mouvar only appeared to appear.
The real Mouvar is not a green dwarf. The real Mouvar was not ignominiously defeated by that frame’s inept magician. All was of a fabric—a pretense for the purpose of creating a legend and a hero to work to his final purpose.”
“And that purpose is?” Zady demanded.
“Oh, Zady, I was afraid you’d ask. I do not know; I have been who I am for too long. All I know is that neither—neither Mouvar nor I—interfere directly. To do so would bring us into direct confrontation with each other, and that would be out of form.”
“You are saying,” Zady grated through ugly teeth, “that a green dwarf shape is not Mouvar’s true form?”
“But he was there, several times. And elsewhere. Setting up John Knight and Charlain to become parents of Kelvin. Providing Kelvin with weapons. Arranging for the creation and birth of his brats.”
“Correct again, Zady, as far as you go. Mouvar is always indirect. I have to be also.”
“That doesn’t make sense to me. I interfere as much as I can.”
“That is because you are a tool instead of a prime mover. I am the one who must be indirect.”
“Then it’s you and Mouvar as much as malignant magic practitioners against benign magic practitioners?
As much as Kelvin and prophecy against an otherwise established fate?” triumphed as much as it has.”
“Then I wait your interference!” Zady said. “Direct or indirect, there’s no difference.”
“Ah, but Zady, there is. Mouvar took centuries in the dragon frame to set up what you will now knock down. He foresees events but cannot always control them. I foresee less clearly but just as certainly. If I take direct action in human affairs I risk more than you can know. A draw is the most I can hope for from this particular contest, with just a chance for personal victory.”
“I don’t believe any such thing,” Zady said. “If you wanted to you could destroy my enemies and Mouvar.”
“It’s proper that you think so. You are supposed to think so. Mouvar and I are both too powerful ever to meet in open conflict. If we did the contested world would be destroyed along with its inhabitants.
Mouvar and I in mortal combat would send frame after frame crashing.”
“Then you won’t come out? Won’t battle directly?”
“Not directly. But indirectly, perhaps, as necessary.”
“You want my kind victorious?”
“Always. It’s like the game the humans play called chess. Mouvar moves and I move, but neither of us moves ourselves upon the board.”
“Like chess but with more pieces.”
“Exactly. But with pieces of more varied and unequal powers.”
The beautiful young witch with the old, ugly face stared at the handsome, horned professor from her rheumy yellow eyes. He could imagine her thinking, turning over and over what she had only just learned.
Thinking now not about Kelvin or the hoped-for victory. Rather she would be considering the larger implications.
Zady, he thought, standing, ready to take her shapely body into his scaly arms, this time you’ll win.
When this is over the goody-goodies will be gone; your kind, my favorite kind, will throughout the dragon frame predominate. There will be no Kelvin Hackleberry left alive and Mouvar will have wasted centuries.
“Zady,” he said aloud, “come to your professor. Come now and we will dance.”
She held back, but not, he knew, from coyness. “You will give me your help, Professor?”
“All that is necessary,” he promised. “All that you will need to make Kelvin Knight Hackleberry’s world a world ruled by malignant magic.”
He grabbed her quickly, to claim his reward.
Glow was lovelier than she had ever been, thought young Charles Knight. He sat contentedly on the riverbank, watching her disrobe for an early swim. Her curves were just perfect, and her face—what a lovely, glowing countenance!
It had been twenty years, he thought, remembering as she dived. He watched the water splash, the ripple rings form. Twenty years ago she had been an enchanted sword. Though but a child he had disenchanted her, with Helbah’s help. Their father, Kelvin, had saved his sister’s life, and he, scared little Charles, had somehow found the courage to kick Zady’s severed head from off the high precipice. In his mind’s eye he saw it turning over and over, wailing as it fell. It was after that that he had performed the magic and brought Glow out of his dreams and into his life. Twenty years later and they still only planned.
“And what are you doing, as if I don’t know?” He turned to see Merlain, his coppery-haired sister, emerge from the woods. A real beauty, she, and like himself still unmarried. Being telepathic, the three of them shared an intimacy that was more than body and sometimes seemed more than mind. They had decided long ago that when Merlain had a suitable mate the four of them would wed. Alas, finding another telepath, or even a nontelepath of the right quality, was taking time. But time was what he and his sister most had. The tiny bit of chimaera powder that had allowed them to be born had at the same time given them all indefinitely extended lifetimes. But Glow still had the nightmares in which her gleaming sharp edge was being used against those she loved and cherished.
“Well?” Merlain persisted.
He shrugged. “You know quite well. Did you find Horace?”
“No!” She looked a little worried. “But I think I know where he’s gone. Darn dragon, you’d think that he could wait.”
“Yes,” he said absently, “dragons do live for centuries, but dragons are dragons.”
“He’s our brother!”
“Yes.” He and Merlain were not twins; they were two of triplets, and the third was the dragon. Without the chimaera’s intervention they would have been a chimaera: a woman’s head, a man’s head, and a dragon’s head on one giant scorpiocrab body complete with long, copper sting. Though separate, they were closer than triplets, because of an incidental legacy of the chimaera: telepathy.
“Do you think we should call him? Before he’s out of range?” She meant with their minds, for Horace had the same mental power. The young dragon was keeper of the magic opal and overking of the Alliance. Unlike normal dragons Horace had copper scales instead of gold. The three of them had been affectionate friends and playmates all their lives, but spring was spring and the dragon was the carrier of an ancient urge. The same urge Charles had when he gazed at naked Glow, and so became vulnerable to his sister’s teasing.
“No,” Charles said, ruminating, “we shouldn’t bother him.”
“But he might get in trouble!” the beautiful copper-haired girl said. “He’s never been with other dragons.
He won’t know how to behave.”
“That’s why he’s going. You know he’s smarter than dragons he’ll find. He needs to find his own kind, as you do too.”
Merlain frowned, seemingly from distaste. She plunked her pretty bottom down on their favorite boulder. She studied her reflection. “At least he’s got dragon territory to go to. Sometimes I wish there was a telepath territory.”
“Some chance!” They’d searched everywhere and asked everyone. Even Helbah couldn’t help. Yet somewhere there had to be some male deserving of and deserved by his sister.
“Oh, there you are!” Glow called. She came dripping wet in all her beauty. She was oblivious of her nudity except when her brattling charges were around. Hers was an enormous responsibility. Kildom and Kildee were kings who aged only one year for a normal human’s four. The extended childhood was supposed to make for expanded learning, but the terrible twins rarely displayed that. In their case it seemed to mean expanded time for mischief. Now an apparent twelve years old—never mind that they were in their mid-thirties in actual years—they were curious boys slowly developing into arrogant men.
Charles took off his leatherskin jacket and positioned it on the boulder, hoping Glow would perch there.
Instead the lovely girl put on her correct underclothes and her neatly starched white nannydress. Then she joined them. She knew his hope, of course. She wasn’t teasing him; she just preferred not to tempt him.
“Kildom, Kildee, and Helbah have some business with your parents. That’s why I have the day off. We might just as well enjoy the spring while they spend the day in talk.”
“I can’t imagine those brats discussing anything seriously,” Charles said. “Mom and Dad, perhaps.”
“Well, they are. Your granddad and grandma will be with them. I don’t know what it’s about. It’s certainly Helbah doing it.”
“I wonder if it could have something to do with Dad’s prophecy?” Merlain asked. “You know.” She recited the lines that always made Charles wince:
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.
“Most likely,” Charles said when the recital was done, “it’s to do with Zady. Helbah has always insisted she’d be coming back. Twenty years ago Dad struck her head off and I kicked it off the cliff. Then you, Merlain, claimed you saw an eagawk carrying it.”
“I did!” Merlain insisted. “Proof of that is that the head was never recovered. Helbah thinks there’s some counter-magic that prevented her finding it.”
“Most likely the eagawk dropped it,” Charles said. “You two believe what you want, but I don’t think she’s coming back.”
The two girls looked as if on a worse day they might have argued. They might believe him wrong, but it was too nice a day to be bickering with those you knew were your very best friends. Besides, had either of them looked into his mind, Charles knew they would have gleaned his uncertainty.
The big, gray-haired, gray-bearded man with the gnarled face definitely had round ears. He sat there in Charles Lomax’s Wine and Chess House, sipping a short mug of dark red. He was toying with a king, in the meantime joking it up with Danceye Nellie, the serving maid all men swore had to have the biggest jugs in town.
“That him?” The tall, bronzed man had the mark of an adventurer. He nodded now at the table, as Charlie had expected him to do.
Charlie wiped at the bar where the noon patrons had spilt. He prided himself on reading types. This man was the sort he had soldiered with when he was young and idolized the man at the table. But the questioner was a stranger.
“I’m Charlie Lomax. I own this place. Introduce yourself and I might tell you.”
“You might?” The stranger seemed amused at this middle-aged man’s near challenge. It was as though he knew perfectly well that he could get the information without troubling himself. “I’m Dack. Tim Dack. I’ve been poking around dragon territory, looking for scale.”
“Dangerous business.” Charlie gripped Dack’s firm, rough hand in his decidedly pudgier one. It had been a long time since he had been soldiering. “You there long?”
“Better than half a year.”
“You bring back a lot of scale?”
Dack shook his head. “They shed ‘em but I didn’t find many. Mostly I escaped with my life.”
“Good practice. You want to know about that gentleman?”
Dack nodded. “He’s not John Knight, Kelvin’s father?”
“Nope. He’s Kelvin’s father-in-law. Sean Reilly, commonly known as St. Helens.”
“I’ve heard of him.” Dack seemed about to walk over.
“Wait until she comes back. He’s still got his temper. He might think it’s her you want to see.”
Nellie whooped suddenly and pretended to brain the roundear with her serving tray. St. Helens made a slap at her seating arrangement. When she got back to the bar the tips of her pointed ears were red.
“That man!” she said to her employer, dark eyes dancing. “If he doesn’t quit joking me he’ll be the death of me.”
“More likely the life of you if he has his lecherous way.” He took her tray, observing again that she really was pretty, top-heaviness aside. Sometimes St. Helens called her “Dolly,” though he hadn’t worked out why.
“I’ll tell you what, Dack. I’ll introduce you. But then you’ll have to buy a round of wine.”
“Fair enough.” Dack was halfway across the room in long strides before he caught up with him. St.
Helens looked up from the chessboard, probably wondering if this were an autograph seeker or some scribe intent on getting an article.
“St. Helens, this is Tim Dack. He says he’s a man back fresh from dragon territory.”
St. Helens nodded, looking first at Dack’s pointed ears. Four times in recent years men had come in who were descendants of John Knight’s company from Earth; without exception they had wanted to meet someone who had known their father. He held out his hand and they shook.
“Dack wants to talk with you and he asked me to sit in. He’s buying a round of red when Nel gets back.
New keg of the dark to be tapped.”
St. Helens belched. Dack pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. Charlie took the empty chair to the side.
St. Helens waited, toying with the chess piece. He and his business partner, Phillip Blastmore, onetime king of the former kingdom of Aratex, had made money on the game they had introduced. Everyone knew about St. Helens’ business, and most knew his history. St. Helens, as many, many people had discovered, generally liked to talk.
“General Reilly,” Dack began. Like most people the respect he felt made him hesitant.
“St. Helens,” St. Helens said. If he had not had an immediate favorable impression of the man he would not have corrected him.
“St. Helens, I’ve read and heard about your exploits all my life. I know how you and John Knight and a company of roundears, all soldiers from some place called Earth, arrived in our world by magic. You and he and the other roundears—”
“Army unit, and it wasn’t magic, or at least my old commander, John Knight, always claimed it wasn’t.
Science, he always said, as if it made any difference. I used to agree with him because he was the commander, but these days I sort of lean to the majority.”
“You think, then, that it was magic?”
St. Helens nodded. He looked away, as from a painful subject, giving the studied impression that he was not about to elaborate. “So you want my story?” he asked in a way he supposed was unexpected.
Dack nodded. Poor fellow, he didn’t know the former general of local troops.
“Well, sir, I was born on Earth, a world like this except that Earth was in some ways nicer and in some ways worse. No magic on Earth to run things—none at all. Instead we had science, and with that we accomplished things that here are accomplished by magic.”
As he always did at this point, St. Helens paused and took a sip of wine. He rinsed it around in his mouth, savoring its distinctive spicy flavor. He swallowed, then continued.
“I was in the North American army along with my commander, then Captain John Knight. I volunteered, as did the rest who were with us. ‘We want twelve volunteers. Reilly, you’ve just volunteered.’ “
Dack chuckled appreciatively. Evidently he knew about armies.
“This big deal was to test an atomic missile that was clean. That meant it only killed people and did nothing disastrous like poisoning valuable territory. We weren’t supposed to any of us have been hit, but somehow we were. The missile came in low and we all ducked and threw ourselves flat with our eyes shut. The next thing any of us knew we were at the edge of the Flaw, that big, incredible crack in reality you have here. We didn’t any of us have any idea what had happened. Then we figured out that we really were in a different world. Well, sir, we talked it over like regular fellows and not army men, and—”
On and on, telling his familiar story. Dack could have been an unusual type of scholar and author, but Charlie doubted that he was. No matter; he liked hearing his old friend’s tale as told by his old friend. If it hadn’t been for his business of making chessmen and boards—none of the work actually done by himself, of course, or Phillip Blastmore—he could have made money lecturing.
“...and so there the kid was, stuck with his prophecy!” St. Helens was saying much later. “My old commander’s son, and him in the Rud Queen’s prison and me in the Aratex palace with very young Phillip. Kelvin wasn’t the sort to believe in prophecy, but thanks to his father he had the ears, and now he had the gauntlet. Well, after the kid whipped the big guardsman in the public park, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was genuine. All this time Jon, his pointed-ear little sister—and let me tell you she was a pretty good man with that sling of hers—was in that terrible auction place. My own dear daughter, Heln, was there too. Now I guess you know how guards used to be at those places. Poor little Heln, as delicate a lass as you ever saw, was ravished. You see, she had the ears, thanks to me, and no prophecy. When the filthy guardsman had finished with her, all she could think to do was die. But little Jon was there, and she had some dragonberries. Those things are poison to you with pointed ears, but in us roundears they work different. Jon didn’t mean any harm with the berries, but Heln grabbed them and swallowed them. Instead of dying as she wanted, Heln had this strange experience. Let me tell you, what happened to her then took away all thoughts of dying.”
Nellie brought a fresh jug. She put it down by the chessboard and seated herself midway between her employer and the storyteller. Her sharp ears were tuned, obviously. In the process of telling his own story St. Helens was, as always, telling of adventures he had shared—a delight to the proprietor’s ears. Most of what he told had to be about Kelvin Knight Hackleberry, the fabled Roundear, but St. Helens assigned everyone he could a role of importance. As always St. Helens did not omit his own bravery and accomplishments.
Tick tick tick went the big clock above the wine barrels, counting off the narrative. As always Charlie was spellbound, and Nellie and the stranger seemed to be as well.
“And so young Charles—not your good host, though he was probably named for him—kicked the old witch’s head. It wailed in midair, and it fell off the cliff in the wake of his sister. In the meantime, Kelvin, young Charles’ father, was moving like a blur. He saw his only daughter falling to her certain death, and acting without a moment’s hesitation, he—”
Inevitably the long story reached its satisfying end. Dack, like many a listener before him, had kept enthralled. Nellie, though she knew the big roundear well, had the look of full hero worship and the eye-gleam that said how much she could love him. For long moments they simply sat, each of them aglow in separate ways.
“Is that enough for you, young fellow? That fill in the gaps?”
Dack took a swig of wine, not quite looking at them. He was coming slowly back from the adventures that had held his attention. He wiped his mouth, making a purple streak on his sleeve. Like most adventurers, Dack’s table manners weren’t the best.
“St. Helens, General Reilly, sir, I wouldn’t have interrupted you for all the loose scales in dragon territory! I could never top your experiences or equal them. But I’ve had a recent experience—”
“Say on, young fellow,” St. Helens said amiably.
“Well, sir, I’ve heard from childhood about how young Kelvin killed a dragon when he was still a boy, then used the golden scales to buy an army. It was my favorite story, and interesting adventure looked to be more interesting than work. I thought if I could find enough dragon scales, work would thereafter be no problem. So after I inherited my father’s horse and sword and few gold coins, I set off for dragon territory.”
Charlie sipped his wine, marveling at how good his merchandise had become. This promised to be another story, newer than the one before. Of course no story could top St. Helens’, but it was only polite to listen to a potential good customer.
“And so,” Dack was saying later as Charlie’s head buzzed pleasantly, “I lay trapped beneath the big tree branch as the two dragons fought over which would eat me. I gave up all thoughts of becoming rich or living to return home. Then suddenly there was this tickling again—the strange head-sensation I described before. It made me think of the way I felt after several mugs of wine, and yet at the same time it was as though something were sharing my thoughts. I looked up, past the two dragons, and I swear it was just as though my eyes were drawn out. There, coming out from the forest, was a third dragon!”
“Gods help us!” Charlie exclaimed. Even Kelvin had never faced three dragons with no weapon better than a sword. Furthermore Dack couldn’t even have reached his sword. Dack’s weapon had been flung to the side by a casual tail-whip that had killed his horse.
“What did you do?” St. Helens prompted.
“I could do nothing,” Dack admitted. “But then I saw this body on the body of the new dragon. It was a human man, very dirty, with long yellow, almost golden hair. He rode there between the two tiny wings, and he hadn’t anything on at all. All he did was sit there on that smaller dragon. He just sat there, bare naked, and he thought.”
“Thought?” St. Helens was incredulous. “It would seem to me, young fellow, that the time for thinking was past.”
“Ordinarily, yes. But this was thinking too. I know because he thought to me afterwards. What he did at first was think to the fighters that they should quit fighting and go. And you know what? Those battle-scarred old veterans, both of them streaming blood, did just as he and I wanted! They turned tail and lumbered off, and that left just the smaller dragon, the thinker, and myself.”
“Mouvar on a picnic!” Charlie said. Lately he had adopted this meaningless oath that had doubtless been invented by rebellious youngsters. Considering the freedom kids had these days Charlie would sometimes have liked to be a kid himself.
“He stood there, atop the dragon, squarely between the wings, St. Helens. He was as tall as you, with muscles to match his sense of balance. When he stood up, it was just like he grew right up out of the spine of the dragon. He fixed me with a stare, a little accusing. Then that dragon came close, and I started screaming and cursing. But instead of the dragon eating me, it lifted the branch and let me free.
The blond man didn’t say anything—he just pointed back the way I had come. Back out of the mountains, back out of dragon territory. I knew what he meant as surely as if he had spoken. I went, believe me I went, and I didn’t even bother to retrieve my sword or to pick up the bloody scales. All I wanted was to get home.”
“And now you’re home,” St. Helens said, “and you’re thinking you’d like to know about that man. I can’t say I blame you. I’d like to know myself.”
“I’ll bet he was a sorcerer!” Charlie said. “Like Zatanas. He controlled dragons for a time, though through sympathetic magic. I don’t recall that he ever rode around on one.”
“I don’t think he was a magician,” St. Helens said. “Sounds more like a wild man with extra brainpower.
Like Heln’s kids, maybe. If he could think into your head and the dragons’ heads, he had a power.”
“I’ll say he had a power! You should have seen those dragons get!”
“I would have liked to. I wish I could have been there.”
“I’m going back! I’m going to find out! St. Helens, can you go with me? There’s no one better to lead an expedition! No one I’d rather have in charge!”
St. Helens sighed, and Charlie knew his frustration was real. “I’d like nothing better, young fellow. Even though I’m not as young as I once was or in the shape I was when I was younger. But the fact is I may have a responsibility here. According to good witch Helbah, old Zady is going to come back. I don’t know that I believe her and I don’t know that I don’t. My son-in-law still has some prophecy to fulfill, and maybe Zady will make him fulfill it. Gods know I couldn’t talk sense into him! But the point is, if there’s trouble, I may have to put on a uniform.”
“You really think there may be?” Dack asked.
“I’ll tell you, young fellow. I’m almost but not quite sure of it.”
Charlie exchanged meaningful if wine-blurred glances with his number-one serving wench. Both knew that the big man was really agonized. For Sean Reilly, missing an opportunity for an adventure just wasn’t natural.
Dack stood up, said his good-byes, shook hands all around, only a little bit hesitantly with Nellie. It had been a long, pleasant afternoon storytelling.
Kelvin Knight Hackleberry sat his middle-aged self down in the comfortable chair between his mother and father. It seemed strange to him to be in one of the twin palaces with them and Helbah and the twins terrible, as Merlain and Charles called them. The young scamps were slicked up with their official robes on and brightly polished crowns on their red heads. Even Katbah, Helbah’s familiar, shone, if anything, blacker than usual.
“As you know,” Helbah said, facing the tight little circle, “it’s been twenty years. That’s how long it should have taken for Zady to grow a new body on her head. As you also know, my magician, warlock, and witch friends and I have searched. The head has not been located, and that means a powerful protective spell was placed on it. Zady has an ally who wants her back.”
Kelvin tried to look impressed. He had decided years back that Helbah, though with the best of intentions, had to be judged more than a little inept. The same had to go for her friends, many of whom he had met at the convention. The head could just have disappeared when his son deflated the body with the point of his father’s sword. Then it had been only Merlain who saw the eagawk carrying the head.
Merlain was his beloved daughter and unnaturally smart, but at the time she was six years old and had just been subjected to what had to be the shock of her young life.
“Kelvin,” Helbah said abruptly, interrupting his far more interesting thoughts, “you’ve gotten fat! You’re in no shape to fight battles! When’s the last time you exercised?”
“Uh...” Kelvin said, exerting his brilliance. It was true he hadn’t been weight lifting or jousting or even riding horses much. But then why should he? He couldn’t believe that Zady was coming back, and if she did, he had help. His gauntlets, his boots, the chimaera’s sting, and Mouvar’s antimagic weapon, not to mention the levitation belt, would handle everything. If he couldn’t wear them these days he’d gladly let someone else use them.
“What kind of a hero are you, anyway?” Helbah stormed. She was poking him in the middle with an aged forefinger. Strong old woman that she was, the finger went through his buffer area and hurt.
“And you, Charlain!” Helbah said, turning on his unoffending mother. “When’s the last time you practiced those spells?”
Charlain blushed. “Really, Helbah, I’m not a witch. I know you wanted me to be your apprentice, and we did work together that once, but I haven’t really practiced.”
“You belittle yourself. You have natural talent. It isn’t your fault that you were born human. Your daughter also has talent.”
“Only because you and Katbah used us. All I ever tried to do before meeting you was to predict with the cards. Really, there’s no use in arguing, it’s you who are the witch.”
Helbah turned to Kelvin’s father, who was quietly examining his own waist. He had put on weight too, though unlike his son he still often exercised.
“Each of you is going to get into shape. And Charlain, you’re going to practice spells. I’ll help with magic, but you men are going to do what is necessary.”
“You mean”—Kelvin choked on the thought—”dieting, and—”
“Of course! You won’t suffer nearly as much as you might; my spells will ease your pain. But that body of yours is going to smooth and harden and do it fast.”
“Maybe just a temporary spell—”
“No! Magic can be reversed, as you well know! You are going to be a hero again and you are going to be in shape!”
“Does that mean no more of my wife’s pies?”
“No pies! No cooakes. No cakies, holenuts, or kudge! No peajelnutly sandwiches! None of that fattening stuff—at least for the duration.”
“The duration of what?”
“The duration of the danger, of course!”
“You really think she’s coming back?” The idea still seemed absurd to him.
“Yes! Charlain, you tell them what you see in the cards.”
Charlain fidgeted in a manner totally unlike herself. Clearly Helbah’s question was one she would rather not answer.
“My ability’s not what it once was,” she said. “It’s grown weaker and weaker, and for the past year I haven’t even practiced.”
“What did you see last time you consulted them?”
The beautiful woman of advancing years swallowed visibly. There was no resisting Helbah’s stare.
“The cards told me nothing,” she finally said. “Everyone I consulted about. Every question I asked.
Uncertainty and danger is all the cards show. Helbah, it may be the end of our world is coming!”
“Don’t talk foolish!” her husband said, putting an arm around her.
Kelvin felt a cold chill traveling from the base of his backbone. This was his mother talking! His mother who had always been so optimistic and so hopeful that the cards could bring the answer to anything.
“There you are,” Helbah said. “That’s why we have to get ready. Why we have to prepare to meet destiny head on.”
“Meow,” her familiar said, stretching his midnight blackness. It was a sound of total agreement. In the past when danger beckoned he had bared his claws and spat defiance at the universe. The cat recognized that something worse was coming, and that was scary.
Kelvin wondered just what could threaten their very existence. His mother’s cards should have shown her something.
He looked at the apparent twelve-year-olds and they were sitting still like perfect little kings.
Something, Kelvin decided with an uncontrollable shiver, definitely wasn’t shaping up well in his universe.