Five Portraits (Excerpt)

Piers Anthony delivers another tale set in the bestselling world of Xanth, filled with magic, surprises, adventure, and a few puns. Here’s what the author has to say about his new book:

Five Portraits is a kind of sequel to Board Stiff in that it picks up where the other leaves off, with the same characters. Apart from that, it’s one of my favorites within the series.

There’s something about Astrid Basilisk that appeals to me: a very pretty girl whose very glance is deadly, yet she’s a nice person whose selfless effort to save five difficult children from future Xanth is thoroughly worthy. I also like the theme of the power of unlikely friendship. Not just Xanth, but Mundania, too, would be better if there were more such friendships.”

Piers Anthony’s Five Portraits will be published October 21st by Open Road Media. Check out an excerpt below!

 

 

Chapter 1
Basilisk

 

Astrid woke early, as she often did. She left her husband sleeping in the tent and went out to look for pun virus remnants, which sometimes showed up better in the predawn light. She carried a closed vial of elixir, as all the members of her party did, at all times; it was vital to their mission. It was a tedious chore, but somebody had to do it, and they were elected.

She spied an interesting nest and went to investigate. Bees buzzed up warningly as she approached. Astrid merely pursed her lips and blew a breath of air at them, and they quickly spun out of control. After that they recognized her nature and let her be, knowing that she was not a threat to them unless they molested her.

Then she recognized the type: they were quilting bees, whose nest consisted of tiny quilts. It was surely very warm. There was obviously no virus here, for the bees were a pun that had not been eliminated.

She heard a faint panting. Sure enough, there was a pants bush, with several ripe pairs of smart-looking pants. Too smart: those were smarty pants, that when harvested would make the wearer run around madly, or could even run around on their own.

Then there was a spectacles bush with several very nice looking spectacles ready. Astrid had an interest, as she always wore dark glasses. She folded her own glasses and pocketed them, then took a set from the bush and tried them on. Immediately she became dubious, mistrustful, and extremely cynical. Oh—these were skepticals. She put them back and tried a nice red tinted pair. Her mood went from sulky to positive; everything looked wonderful. So these were rose colored glasses. They would do, for now; she was happy for the temper uplift.

There were plenty of puns here, confirmation that the virus had not ravaged this section. But there could still be lurking pockets of it. She had to make sure.

She crossed a barren section where nothing much grew. This was vaguely familiar; she had once lived in country like this. In fact this could be that region, rendered less recognizable by her human perspective. There was a figure kneeling on the ground, facing away from her. Astrid approached. “Hello.”

The figure looked up. It was a woman, a large elf with pointed ears and odd four fingered hands. “Hello.”

Then Astrid saw that before the elf woman was a marked grave-site with a plaque: JONE. “Oh, I’m sorry! I did not realize you were grieving.”

“No, that’s all right. I can’t bring Jone back.” The elf stood. “I am Jenny.”

“I am Astrid. I was just looking for pockets of pun virus to eliminate.”

Jenny stepped toward her. “I am pleased to meet you, Astrid.”

Astrid stepped back. “Please, I do not mean to seem unfriendly, but it is not safe to touch me. I am poisonous.”

Jenny stopped. “I apologize for presuming. You look lovely.”

“It—it’s a kind of curse. My appearance gives men a particular idea, but I can’t be touched.” Then, to change the awkward subject. “If I may ask, who was Jone?”

“My last baby daughter. There was a prophecy that she would one day help someone save Xanth from destruction. But then there was a horrible accident and she died. It has been some time, but I still come out to visit her grave. That is surely foolish of me, and I do not generally speak of it to others.”

“I’m sorry. I regret intruding. I grew up in this region, but did not know of this grave.”

“It is visible only when I come here,” Jenny said.

“I will let you be.” Astrid turned to go.

“That’s all right. There’s something familiar about you. Have we by chance met before?”

“I don’t think so. I think I would have remembered your—”Astrid broke off, embarrassed.

“My pointed ears? My four fingered hands?”

“Yes. I apologize for—”

“No need. I am unique to Xanth, as perhaps you are.”

“Perhaps so,” Astrid agreed.

There was a sound in the distance. A figure loomed, running swiftly toward them. It was a giant wolf!

“Stand behind me,” Astrid said. “I will deter it.”

Jenny laughed. “No need. That is my husband.”

“Your—?”

The wolf slid to a halt, changing to a large handsome man. “Ready to go, dear?”

“Ready, dear,” Jenny agreed. “Fare well, Astrid. I’m sure I know you from somewhere.”

The man became the wolf again. Jenny leaped and landed on his back, riding him like a horse. Then they were off.

Astrid stood bemused. She turned to look at the grave, but it was gone, or at least hidden again. She shook her head, marveling at the odd encounter.

She moved on, discovering a trail in the shape of the letter N. It had an odor of guts. She smiled; that would be an N-Trail. Most folk would avoid it because of the unsavory smell, but such things didn’t bother her. Interesting things could sometimes be found along such trails, for those who had the stomach to follow them to their ends. Anyway, this was a very pretty trail, thanks to the rosy glasses.

It led to a lovely little glade that seemed to be a campsite. To whom did it belong?

“Hello, lovely maiden,” a somewhat gravely voice said. “No, don’t try to retreat; the trail has been closed off behind you.”

Astrid glanced back and saw that it was true; the trail appeared to have become constipated, and there was no clear passage back. “So it seems,” she agreed, unconcerned. She removed the glasses and put her regular ones back on, because she suspected that mischief was afoot and she wanted to see things accurately. Now the clogged trail did not look nearly so nice.

“Shall we exchange introductions? I am Truculent.” He stepped out of the shadow and stood revealed as a supremely ugly troll.

“I am Astrid,” she said.

“And what brings a succulent creature like you to this ill neck of the woods, fair Astrid?”

“I am on a mission to extirpate the last remnants of the anti-pun virus that recently ravaged Xanth,” she explained. “I carry a vial of elixir that will eliminate any vestige of the foul virus.” She held it up. “We all do; we never want to discover the virus and be unable to destroy it before it spreads.”

“You all do? How many are there in your party?”

“Five lovely maidens and four males. One of us has not yet found her ideal companion.”

“That’s too bad,” Truculent said. “She is doomed to find only the worst companion.”

“I don’t think I understand,” Astrid said. Actually she was beginning to get a notion. Trolls had a mixed reputation and a certain crude taste for human maidens. She had encountered one once, and was familiar with the type. “Are you by any ill chance speaking of yourself? I think it is fair to say she would not be interested.”

“I am, and she would not. Trolls come in assorted types. Some are noble, some build highways, and some are simply bad news. I happen to be of the latter persuasion.”

“Then why do you believe she would associate with you?”

“Because she would have no choice.”

He was a brute, all right. But she needed to be quite certain before she acted. “Maybe I am being a bit dull this morning. Surely she would have a choice.”

“She would not. Any more than you do, pretty creature.”

There it was: her appearance had turned him on, and he had mainly one thing on his brutish mind. But she argued her case, in the off-chance that she was misunderstanding his implication. “Certainly I have a choice! I can associate with whomever I please, and as it happens I have a good man who loves me. I will not be taking up with the likes of you.”

“I see I need to spell it out,” Truculent said. “I have a five stage process with respect to a tender morsel like you. First I will chase you down and catch you. That will be a slight but pleasant challenge, since you will be confined to my glade. Second I will rape you. That will be another pleasant challenge, as you will surely struggle and scream, enhancing the conquest. Third, I will kill you. That too should be fun, with blood spattering as I bite off pieces of you until you expire. Fourth I shall roast you on a spit until you are thoroughly cooked, as roasted meat is far tastier than raw flesh. Fifth, I shall eat you, swallowing your juicy tidbits and gnawing on your bones. Then I will start the process over with the four remaining girls of your party. This should make an excellent and nutritious week.”

Astrid considered briefly. “I don’t believe I favor your five stage process. Neither will my companions.”

“I beg your pardon,” Truculent said apologetically. “Did I give you the misimpression that you had any choice in the matter?”

“I do labor under that impression. For example, what of the men of my party? They will not readily cooperate with your process.”

“I was forgetting the men,” the troll agreed. “For them I will skip the rape and still have four-fifths the fun. That will extend my pleasure beyond a week.”

“You seem remarkably confident, considering that you don’t know what talents the members of my party may possess.”

“That merely adds the pleasure of the unknown. On rare occasion a victim does manage to escape my trap. But I believe I have closed the weaknesses, and this little arena is secure.”

“I doubt it.”

“Then shall we put it to the proof now? See if you can escape me.” The troll advanced menacingly on her.

Astrid did not retreat. “Are you sure you won’t reconsider? I do not want to harm you if you are reasonable.”

“Enough of the humor, delicious delicacy! Try to make at least a token chase of it.” He stepped closer.

“Sorry. I decline to play any part of your fell game.”

Truculent stood before her, looming over her. “I am losing my patience with you, sweet taste. Must I knock some sense into your innocent skull?”

“You can try.”

“Then take this, cute fool!” He swing his open hand and slapped her face. Her glasses flew off. He grabbed her shoulders and stared into her face. “Now will you—”

At which point he dropped dead.

Astrid shook her head. “I gave you every chance to relent,” she said sadly. “I really don’t like killing folk if there is any alternative.”

She went to pick up her fallen glasses; fortunately they were unbroken. Their heavy tint was, of course, not to protect her eyes from the sunlight, but to protect other folk from her direct stare. She didn’t want to kill anyone by accident. Not even a troll.

Well, it was time to leave this dread glade. But she discovered that the N trail remained clogged; it had not reverted at the death of the troll. The path was impenetrable.

She walked around the edge of the glade. Now she saw why the troll had thought she was trapped: the trees grew tightly around it, forming a virtual wall, and thorny vines bound them together. There was no room to walk between them. This barrier extended high up, so that only a flying creature could readily escape it. Truculent Troll had wrought his arena carefully. But in his arrogance he had picked on the wrong victim.

So how was she to depart? She didn’t want to mess up anything she didn’t have to. She was just checking for signs of the pun virus, and there were none here.

Well, there was a way. In the last month she and her friends had discovered that they had been granted certain additional talents to facilitate their mission. Mainly, they could change between their most familiar forms. Astrid had not had much use for this, as her man Art preferred her in her human form. But now it seemed appropriate.

She carefully removed her sequined dress, slippers, and underwear. She formed it all into a compact bundle together with her glasses. Quite compact; she was able to tuck it under her tongue, thanks to its magic. Then she changed to her original form: a large female basilisk. She was actually an extremely pretty basilisk, but few folk cared to appreciate that, because her very ambiance was slowly lethal.

Now she circled the glade again, this time sniffing the ground. Sure enough, there was the smell of troll footprints leading to a particular spot. It looked just as tangled as the rest, but her nose said there was an access. She touched it with a paw, and her digits passed through without touching. One of the trees was illusion!

She nosed on into what turned out to be a tunnel through the twisted foliage. It wasn’t visible, but it was there. The troll must have known it well enough to use it even without seeing it. Where did it go?

Straight to a nickelpede nest. The vicious insects swarmed over it, ready to gouge out nickel-sized chunks of flesh from whatever blundered into their domain. There was no way around it; the vine walls were tight on either side.

Well, she could handle nickelpedes. The taste of her flesh would kill any who bit into it, and of course her stare would wipe out any she saw. So she braced herself and marched into the nest. And through it, untouched. It was illusion too!

The path led to the mouth of a cave. It was closely barred, and locked, like a prison cell. It probably was a cell, where the troll kept his future meals. Such as maidens he had caught and raped, but not yet gotten around to killing, cooking, and eating. He would keep them alive so their meat wouldn’t spoil. They ought to be rescued.

Astrid changed back into human form. “Hello!” she called. “Is anybody in there?”

“Go away!” a faint voice replied from deep within the cave.

This was curious. “Why?” Astrid called back.

“This is the lair of a troll. Go away before he catches you and adds you to our number. It is not safe here, especially for maidens, which you sound like. We are doomed, but you can still save yourself if you flee quickly.”

“I will not flee,” Astrid called. “I have come to rescue you. But these bars balk me. How may I open the gate?”

“We’ll try to tell you,” the voice called. Now there was a scurrying as the captives emerged from the depth of the cave. They were goblin maidens, small and lovely. They paused as they saw her. “You’re a nymph!”

Astrid realized that she had not thought to put her human clothing back on. Nymphs were lovely and largely empty-headed; all most of them did was run nude, scream cutely, and kick their feet high, showing off their pretty legs. Few remembered their yesterdays or were aware of their tomorrows; they lived strictly in the present. No ordinary nymph would attempt to rescue captives, because a nymph’s attention span was too short to focus on such a task for more than a few seconds.

“Not exactly,” Astrid said. “I merely forgot my clothes.” She spat out her compact ball, opened it up, and donned her clothing and dark glasses.

“Oh!” a gobliness with lovely reddish brown hair exclaimed. “You’re human!”

Wrong again, but Astrid decided not to clarify that aspect at the moment; it was usually more trouble than it was worth. “Close enough. I am Astrid, traveler.”

“I am Ginger Goblin, captive.”

“Hello, Ginger. I am glad to meet you. Now how can I open this gate?”

“The lock is magic. Only the dread troll can open it.” Ginger hesitated. “Who may come upon us at any moment.”

“No danger of that,” Astrid said.

“How can you be sure? He’s one mean brute.”

“Because he is dead.”

There was a brief silence. “Are you sure?” Ginger asked uncertainly. “He might be playing possum, to better trap you, because you’re very much his type.”

“His type?” Astrid asked sharply.

“Luscious. He would want to ravish and eat you.”

“No, he is definitely dead.”

“How can you be sure? Because if he catches you—”

Astrid became impatient. “Because I killed him. I’m a basilisk.”

The goblins eeked faintly and fell back, terrified.

“Oh come on,” Astrid said. “I’m not here to hurt you. That’s why I put on the glasses. Truculent Troll mistook me for a morsel, and attacked me, knocked off my glasses, and I looked him in the face and killed him. It was self defense. Now I just want to undo some of the damage he did, such as by freeing you to return to your homes. I’m a basilisk, but also a woman. I care about the welfare of maidens.”

The goblins inched cautiously back to the gate. “We’re sorry,” Ginger said. “It’s a bad time for us. Each day he takes one of us to—to—”

“To rape and eat. I knew. But that’s over. We just need to get this gate unlocked.”

“We can’t help you there,” Ginger said. “If we knew how to unlock it, we would have done so ourselves and escaped.”

That made sense. Astrid signed. “Then I’ll have to summon help. This may get complicated.”

“Complicated?”

“You’ll see.” The Astrid braced herself. “Metria,” she murmured.

A small back cloud appeared. “Did I hear my nomenclature?”

“Your what?” Astrid asked. The demoness insisted on going through the ritual, and since Astrid needed her help, she had to comply.

“Terminology, language, word, figure, identifier, handle—”

“Name?”

“Whatever,” the cloud agreed crossly.

“Yes, you heard your name,” Astrid said. “I killed a troll, and now want to rescue his captives, but they are magically locked in. Can you arrange to get Pewter here? He should be able to handle this.”

“Why not just pick the lock?”

“I don’t know how. Do you?”

The cloud expanded and formed into a sultry female figure with barely enough clothing to avoid freaking out any males in the vicinity. Fortunately there were none at the moment. “Oh, sure. I pick my nose; a lock should be cleaner.”

“Then do it, please.”

Metria’s finger went to her nose.

“The lock!” Astrid snapped.

“Oh. Why didn’t you say so?”

Ginger nodded slowly. She was catching on why this was likely to be complicated.

The demoness examined the lock. She put her finger to it. There was a crackle as a spark jumped, and she jerked back. “This is a troll lock!”

“Yes. Can you pick it?”

“Not without being electrocuted. Only trolls can handle troll locks.”

“Could Pewter handle it?”

Metria nodded. “He might. Too bad he’s not here.”

“I have a phenomenal idea,” Astrid said patiently. “Why don’t you pop back to the camp and tell him about this, and ask him to come here to deal with it?”

“What kind of idea?”

“Fantastic, extraordinary, remarkable, superlative, spectacular—”

“Grate?”

Astrid was taken aback. “Grate?”

“Maybe I misspelled it.”

“Great!” Astrid said. “Yes, that’s it. You’re a genius.”

Metria looked slightly suspicious that she was being mocked. “Technically I’m closer to a genie than a genius, but it will do. I’ll go fetch Pewter.” She popped off.

“Thank you, screwball,” Astrid said to the dissipating smoke.

“I heard that!” the last wisp said.

“Oh, bleep!” Astrid swore.

“We have heard of Metria,” Ginger said. “She’s always mischief.”

“She’s a member of our party,” Astrid said. “She does mean well, in her fashion. It just can be a trial at times working with her.”

“We appreciate that.”

Soon the cloud reappeared. “Tiara is on her way.”

“Tiara? But it’s Pewter we need here at the moment.”

“But he can’t fly. Tiara can.”

Astrid counted mentally to ten. It hardly helped. “I wonder whether she will be willing to go back to fetch Pewter.”

“No need.”

“No need?”

“Superfluous, pointless, redundant—”

“Why is there no need to go back to fetch Pewter?”

“Because she’s already bringing him.”

Astrid counted from eleven to twenty. That didn’t help much either. “Thank you.”

“Always glad to help,” the demoness said sunnily.

In due course Tiara appeared. Her wild fair hair was gathered and wound around her mid section, its flotation supporting her like an inner tube. She had fins on her hands and feet, and was efficiently swimming through the air, as she had learned how to do in the past month. But she seemed to be alone. Astrid kept her mouth shut, afraid to inquire.

Tiara circled over the forest, spied them, and spiraled gently down, her skirt flapping in the breeze. She landed fairly neatly. She had bright blue eyes, a red cherry mouth, nice features, and a firm slender body. “Hello, Astrid,” she said brightly as her hair shortened and formed back into her namesake tiara. “We wondered what you were up to.”

“I had a run-in with a hungry troll. Now we need to unlock the troll’s gate to let out his captives.”

“Ah. That must be why you need Com Pewter.”

“Yes. He has a way with locks.”

Tiara removed her hand-fins, reached into her small backpack and fished out what looked like a potato chip with the letter C printed on one side, and the letter P on the other side. She brought it to her mouth and kissed it. “Wake, CP.”

The chip expanded, forming into an android with a face painted on the front of the head. It was of course a computer chip. “Thank you, maiden.”

“For the ride?” Tiara asked.

“That, too.”

Astrid smiled. Theoretically the machine was immune to the charms of pretty girls, but that was evidently changing. Com Pewter was no prince, but the kiss had revived him regardless.

“Here is the lock,” Astrid told Pewter, indicating the barred gate. “Can you open it?”

Pewter considered the gate without touching it. “This is a sophisticated setup. The lock is protected by an invisible magnetic shell that will short circuit me if I touch it. The troll surely had it keyed to his identity alone. We need to eliminate the shell first.”

“How do we do that?”

“One good bash by a nonmetallic object should do it.”

“Then I think we need Ease and Kandy.”

“We do,” Pewter agreed.

“I will fetch them,” Tiara agreed. Her hair grew long again. She wrapped it around her middle, donned the hand fins, and took off. There was almost but not quite a flash of panties before she leveled out and swam forward. She was still learning to manage such details. Trousers would have solved that problem, but Tiara considered them unfeminine. Soon she was gone.

“How come a common garden-variety troll has such a fancy security system?” Metria asked.

“I can answer that,” Ginger responded from inside the cave. “My friends and I were out foraging for flowers, and there were some pretty ones in the glade. We didn’t realize that it was the troll’s trap. He pounced on us and we were helpless to resist. He told us that he had made a deal with his troll-way-building cousins to provide one or more pretty girls to serve their needs. When they come to collect, any of us who survive will be given to them to serve as slaves. We hoped they would come soon, because they can’t be worse than Truculent.”

Astrid did not like the smell of this. “What kind of slaves?”

“We don’t know, but we can guess. The difference is that they probably won’t cook and eat us, after. They’re more civilized.”

Ideas of civilization evidently differed. Still, the trollway trolls were a higher class, and surely better to deal with. “Well, that deal is terminated,” Astrid said. “We’ll free you so you can go home.”

“We appreciate that.”

But now there was a heavy tramping along the hidden trail. Trolls!

“Let’s hope for their sake that they are reasonable,” Pewter said to Astrid. “If not, you know what to do.”

“I do,” she agreed grimly, touching her dark glasses.

The trolls came to stand before the cave. There were three of them, each uglier than the others. “What have we here?” their evident leader demanded.

Astrid stepped forward. “Let’s exchange introductions. I am Astrid. Truculent Troll attacked me and I had to defend myself, as you may have seen in the glade.”

“We did,” the troll said. “I am Truman Troll and these are my henchmen. How did you manage to overcome Truculent?”

“I am a basilisk in human form.”

“He knows better than to mess with a basilisk!”

“He did not give me much of a chance to clarify my nature. He was too busy clarifying his own five stage process.”

Truman nodded. “That does sound like him. Why have you not long-since departed this vicinity?”

“We mean to free Truculent’s captives so they can go home. They have suffered more than enough already.”

“Those captives devolve to us, now that Truculent is dead. We have uses for them.”

“You shall not have them.”

“This is troll business. There are precedents.”

“It became my business when Truculent attacked me. Any deals he may have made ended with his death.”

“We do not agree. The terms of the deal extend to the heirs and assigns.”

“We do not agree with your interpretation.”

“Do we agree that an altercation between our kind and your kind could become mutually difficult?”

“Our kinds have normally left each other alone,” Astrid agreed.

Truman exchanged a glance or three with his companions, then stared down at her. “Then it seems we have a problem.” He closed his massive fists as the two henchmen donned hoods that would prevent her from staring directly at their faces. That would provide them only partial protection, and inhibit their vision. Still, it increased their chances of dispatching her before she dispatched them. It seemed they had clashed with basilisks before.

Astrid touched her glasses. She could handle trolls, even experienced ones. But it was chancy; she could not be sure of taking out all three before one got to her with a club. They were of course aware that they would take losses. “I hope it can be amicably resolved.”

Truman smiled without humor. “So do I. Do you have a proposal?”

“I do,” Pewter said.

Truman glanced at him. “And you are?”

“Com Pewter, a smart machine allied with Astrid. You do not know my capabilities.”

“Oh, we do, Pewter,” Truman said. “Your iconoclasm is well known. But your power is limited to your immediate vicinity.”

“You are standing on the verge of that vicinity. You will enter it if you clash with Astrid.”

Truman nodded. “Excellent point. What is your proposal?”

“Surely the goblins have some troll captives, saved for similar purposes as you save goblins. How about a captive exchange?”

“We prefer a good old fashioned raid and heads-bashing.”

“Which would cost you the lives of the captives, making the raid in that respect pointless.”

“So it would, unfortunately. But goblin males, in contrast with their females, are surly brutes not much known for negotiation. We would be at war before we came to terms.”

“Unless a basilisk served as intermediary.”

This time the troll’s smile had humor. “Well now! That notion appeals. Let’s see what offers. This will require a dialogue with the captives. Shall we make a truce for this hour?”

“Granted,” Pewter said.

“Granted,” Astrid agreed. Trolls were dark and dangerous, but they did honor truces.

Truman’s fists unclenched, and the henchmen’s hoods came off. They knew that machines and basilisks also honored truces.

“May I say, Astrid, that you are one extremely fetching creature in this form,” Truman said. “It is a pleasure to be near (but not too near) you.”

“Thank you.” At least he was polite about the idea the sight of her gave him.

Truman squatted down to peer into the barred cave. “Goblins, we are in negotiation phase. Are there any troll captives in your home mound?”

“Three,” Ginger said. “But we can’t say how long they will survive.”

“They were alive when you left?”

“Yes. But the female was stripped and tied down for the benefit of—you know.”

“Yes. We treat captives similarly. It is to mutual advantage for us to arrange an exchange.”

“Yes,” Ginger agreed faintly.

The troll inspected the lock. “That’s one of ours, yes, keyed to Truculent. No one else can touch it without getting electrocuted. You have a way to deal with it?”

“We believe so,” Pewter said. “Assistance is on the way.”

Truman turned to Astrid. “Now let’s go see the goblins. May I offer you a lift?”

“That is surely faster,” Astrid agreed.

“Climb into my knapsack.”

She got behind him and did so. Then he stood. “Remain here,” he told the henchmen. And to Astrid: “Trust, but verify.”

“Agreed.”

Then the troll forged into the brush, bashing out his own trail. In a remarkably brief time they reached the goblin mound.

The goblins surged out, brandishing weapons. “Ho! Fresh meat!” their leader cried.

“Not so,” Truman said. “I come to negotiate.”

“Negotiate, negatiate,” the goblin said. “You were a fool to come into our power, poop for brains.”

“I bring with me a basilisk.”

“Nice bluff, moron! We don’t see any—” He paused.

Astrid had changed to her natural form, gazing out and around from the knapsack, not looking at anyone directly. The goblins shrank away, well knowing that form.

“As I was saying,” Truman said. “We have three goblin girls from your mound as captives. We will exchange them for your three troll captives. Do we have a deal?”

“The bleep!” the goblin chief swore.

Astrid lowered her gaze. She looked at a tied sheep they were probably saving for the evening meal. It looked her way, and fell dead.

“Do we have a deal?” Truman repeated.

The goblins looked at the sheep. They quailed, realizing that this was no bluff. “Deal,” the chief said, disgruntled.

“We shall return in due course with the captives,” Truman said. “In the interim, you will bring out your captives and have them ready here. Then we will exchange.” He paused meaningfully. “Should anything go wrong, my companion might be annoyed. You wouldn’t like her when she’s annoyed.”

The goblins quailed again. The last thing they wanted was an angry basilisk marauding through their mound.

Truman turned and forged back through the brush. Astrid returned to her human form. “You have an effective way with words, Astrid,” he remarked.

“Thank you.” She hadn’t said anything, but her threat of a glare had been enough. That was his point.

When they reached the cave, Tiara was just arriving, swimming through the air with the man called Ease on her back as if riding a dolphin. Her hair had to be struggling to float them both, but was managed it. He waved. Then he did a double take. “Trolls!” He drew his trusty wooden board and brandished it threateningly.

“We are in truce, unfortunately,” Truman said. “But after our business here is done, if you wish to try you board against my club, I will be glad to accommodate you.”

“He’s right,” Astrid called. “We made a truce. We are friends for this hour. No fighting.”

“Oh, bleep,” Ease said, lowering the board as Tiara landed. He jumped off her back.

“Here is the situation,” Pewter told Ease. “I need to unlock this lock to free the goblin captives, but it is protected by an invisible shell. Kindly bash apart that shell.”

“Sure,” Ease said. It was his talent to make things easy. He swung the board at the lock. There was a sharp crack, and a small explosion of sparks, and the formerly invisible fragments of the shell dropped to the ground.

“Thank you,” Pewter said. “Now let me concentrate. This may take a little time.”

“We have made a deal to exchange captives, goblins for trolls,” Astrid said. “It’s a situation I blundered into, but it is working out.”

Ease turned away. He touched the board to the ground, and it became a lovely young woman with dark eyes and luxuriant dark hair. “And hello Kandy,” Astrid said.

Both the goblins and the trolls were startled. “What just happened here?” Truman asked.

“I have the ability to change forms between human and board,” Kandy explained. “Just as Astrid changes between human and basilisk. When I’m the board, I make sure Ease’s aim is good and his strike effective.” She rubbed her neck. “Though I must admit that charge on the shell gave me a jolt.”

“It occurs to me that you folk are no ordinary group,” Truman said.

“We’re a special mission to eliminate the last of the anti-pun virus,” Kandy explained. “To that end we have been granted certain additional abilities. We are a bit unusual.”

“So it seems,” the troll agreed, glancing at Astrid, Kandy, and Tiara. “Are all the females of your party as pretty as the three of you?”

Demoness Metria appeared. “Yes.”

“And a demoness!” Truman said. “The surprises keep coming.”

“Surprises can be fun,” Metria said, inhaling so that her decolletage threatened to tear loose and float away.

“I am curious how a basilisk came to associate with a human party, and a demoness, a machine, a girl who floats on her hair, and a board woman,” Truman said. “Not that it’s any of my business, which makes it even more intriguing.”

“We’re curious too,” Ginger said. “It’s not our business either.”

“Well, that would be a chapter-length personal narrative,” Astrid said. “I wouldn’t want to bore you to distraction with a dull literary flashback.”

“As it happens, this lock threatens to require a chapter-length effort,” Pewter said.

“So we’re stuck for the time anyway,” Ginger said.

Truman and his henchmen settled down on the ground. “Bore us,” he said.

The others settled similarly. What could she do? Astrid began to speak.

 

citation

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