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Another humorous science-fiction adventure in the best-selling Xanth series moves the scene to Ptero, a tiny planet where the future of Xanth is fulfilled, and where a young satyr searches for a spirit to save a magic tree.
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Piers Anthony is one of the world's most popular fantasy authors, and a New York Times bestseller twenty-one times over. His Xanth novels have been read and loved by millions of readers around the world, and he daily receives hundreds of letters from his devoted fans.
In addition to the Xanth series, Anthony is the author of many other best-selling works. Piers Anthony lives in Inverness, Florida.
FAUN & GAMES
1FORRESTHey, Faun, how about some fun?" Forrest Faun rubbed what remained of his night's sleep out of his eyes and looked down to the base of his tree. There stood a fetching nymph with all the usual nymphly features: pretty face, flowing hair, perfect figure, and no clothing. But there was something amiss."What do you mean?" he asked as he sat up in a fork, still getting his bearings."What do you think I mean, Faun? Come down and chase me, the way fauns always do to nymphs."Then he had it. "You're no nymph.""Oh, pooh!" she swore, pouting. She dissolved into smoke and reformed as a luscious clothed demoness. "I am D. Mentia, out seeking routine entertainment or mischief while my better half waxes disgustingly motherly. What gave me away?""If I tell you, will you go somewhere else?" It was usually possible to get rid of demons if one made a suitable deal with them."Yes, if you want me to." Her bright yellow dress fuzzed, showing the vague outline of her body beneath, with almost a suggestion of a forbidden panty line.So there was a catch. "Why wouldn't I want you to?""Because I have dreadful information that will puzzle and alarm you and perhaps change your whole outlook."That seemed like adequate reason. Forrest, now fully awake, jumped down to the ground, landing neatly on his hoofs. "What gave you away was your manner. You werenot acting like a nymph. You were way too forward and intelligent. Much of a nymph's appeal is in her seeming reticence and lack of intellect. Now what's this dreadful information?""Follow me." Mentia whirled in place, so that her body twisted into a tight spiral before untwisting facing the opposite direction, and walked away. Her skirt shrank so as to show her legs as far up as was feasible without running out of limb. But of course Forrest didn't notice, because nothing a demoness showed was very real.She led him across the glade to a tree on the far side. "See."Forrest stared with dismay at the clog tree. It was wilting, and its clogs were falling to the ground. That could mean only one thing: it had lost its spirit.As it happened, the clog tree's spirit was Forrest's friend: Branch Faun. They had known each other for almost two centuries, because their two trees were in sight of each other. Almost every day Forrest would drop out of his sandalwood tree, and join Branch in the glade between them to dance a jig or two. With luck, their jigging would attract the fleeting attention of a nymph or three, who would join in, jiggling. With further luck, jig and jiggle would lead to a pleasant chase and celebration.But this morning Branch's tree was in a sad state. It wouldn't fade so soon if its faun were merely absent; fauns and nymphs shared an awareness with their trees that alerted them instantly if harm came to either. Let a human forester even come near such a tree with an axe, and its faun would have a fit. Let a faun split a hoof, and his tree would shudder. Such reactions were independent of distance; a faun could run far away from his tree, and still be closely attuned to it. They felt each other's pain."Are you trying to ignore me?" Mentia asked warningly. Demonesses could handle almost anything except that."No. You're right. I am puzzled and alarmed by this dreadful scene. Do you know anything about it?""No. I just happened to note it in passing, so I looked for the closest creature who might be tormented by it."He glanced at her. "You're one crazy organism.""Thank you," she said, flushing red with candy stripes. The color extended to her clothing and hair, and traces of it radiated into the air around her.The clog tree's distress meant that Branch was in serious trouble, if not dead. What could have happened? Branch had been fine yesterday. In fact he had encountered a nymph from a lady slipper tree whose slippers gave her special fleetness, just as the sandals from Forrest's sandalwood tree gave him excellent footing, and the clogs from Branch's tree protected his hoofs. They had had quite a merry chase. Because that was what fauns and nymphs did; they chased each other until they came together, and then they celebrated in a manner that children were not supposed to see. Because it did tend to get dull just sitting in one's tree all the time.In fact, Forrest now remembered, the nymph, clad only in her slippers, had led Branch a chase right out of sight. Meanwhile her friend from an oak tree, named Kara Oke, had done some very nice singing to background music of wind through trees, so Forrest had had his own distraction. Naturally he had chased her, and naturally she had fled, but not too swiftly, because she was still singing her oak song. So he had caught her, and they had celebrated in the usual fashion, while she continued singing. That had been interesting, because she had sung of every detail of the experience they were sharing, making it a work of musical art. Then she had returned to her tree, satisfied that her song worked. There weren't any other nymphs around at the moment, so Forrest had returned to his own tree and settled down for the night. And now his friend was gone."So what are you going to do about it?" Mentia inquired.Do? She was right; he probably should be doing something. But what? "What do you think?""I think you will follow their footprints, so you can find out what happened to them.""Now that's really sensible," he agreed.The demoness turned smoky black. "Darn!"He set off in search of them. He had no trouble following their tracks: her slipper prints, which were hourglass shaped, in the manner of the nymph herself, and his clog prints, which were forceful and furred. They looped around other trees, as she made cute dodges and diversions. It was the chase that counted; fauns and nymphs loved to run almost as much as they loved to dance. The better the chase, the better the celebration at the end. Forrest remembered a nymph once who had been in a bad mood, because her tree was suffering a fungus infestation, and had simply stood there. This was of course a complete turn-off, and no faun had touched her. Any nymph who wanted nothing to do with any particular faun had only to refuse to move, and he would leave her alone. Sometimes a nymph teased a faun, pretending disinterest, then leaping into pursuit the moment he turned his back. If she caught him, it was her advantage, and he had to do whatever she wanted. Of course that was exactly the same as what he wanted, but other fauns would taunt him unmercifully for getting caught.Mentia, floating along beside him, was getting bored. "Are you ready for me to depart?""Yes," he agreed absently."Good." She remained where she was. He realized that he should have urged her to stay; then she would have been sure that he was up to nothing interesting.The tracks veered toward the Void. That was the nearby region of no return. Of course every faun and nymph knew better than to enter it, because there was no way out of it. Anything that crossed the boundary was doomed. Only special creatures, like the night mares, could escape it, because they weren't real in the way ordinary folk were. They had very little substance."Don't float too near the Void," Forrest warned the demoness.She changed course to approach the boundary, then paused. "Say, you are a cunning one!" she said with admiration. "You knew I'd automatically do the opposite. It almost worked, too. But I'm only a little crazy. You have to be a lot crazy to venture into the Void.""Maybe next time," he muttered.The nymph was clearly teasing Branch, by passing flirtingly close to the fringe of the Void. Her prints almost touched the boundary, then moved away, then came close again. The menace of that dread region added to the thrill of the chase. Forrest had done it too, and knew exactly the steps to take to be sure of never straying across the line.Then his sandals balked. He stopped, perplexed; what was the matter? His sandals were magic, and protected his hoofs from harm, and if he were about to step somewhere harmful, they stopped him. Yet he saw nothing ahead to be concerned about."So what's with you?" Mentia asked. "Tired of walking?""I didn't stop," he explained. "My sandals did.""Say, I'm getting to like you. You're almost as weird as I am.""That's impossible.""Thank you." This time her flush of pleasure was purple with green polka dots, and it extended down her legs and out across the ground around her. "So why did your sandals stop?""I'm not sure. Maybe it was a false alarm."Still, his sandals had never yet been wrong. So he dropped to his furry knees and examined the ground before him. It was ordinary. There were a few smiling gladiolas, the happiest of flowers, and beyond them some horse radishes were flicking off flies with their tails. He thought of asking the nearest horse if it knew of anything harmful here, but he didn't understand plant languagevery well, and in any event all it would say would be "neigh." So finally he got up and made a detour around the place."Oh, well," the demoness said, disappointed.But now he couldn't find the trail. Both sets of tracks were gone. So he turned back--and that was when he saw it. A splinter of reverse wood on the ground. He was sure of its identity, because the gladiola closest to it was drooping sadly. And right across it was a lady slipper print. The nymph had inadvertently stepped on the splinter. It hadn't hurt her directly, because it was lying flat. But it must have affected the fleet magic of her slipper, so that she had lost her sure footing."You see something," D. Mentia remarked astutely.Now he saw the clog-print next to it, and realized the awful truth. The nymph had lost her balance, because of the reversal of her slipper magic, and teetered on the edge of the boundary of the Void. Branch had collided with her, caught by surprise by her sudden stop. And the two had sprawled into the Void."Yes. They are gone."It was a freak accident, the kind that would happen hardly once in a century. The reverse wood splinter might have been blown there recently by an errant gust of wind. It would have been harmless, except when it came into contact with something magical. Then that abrupt reversal--Branch and the nymph were lost. They would never get out of the Void. And their trees would suffer, for without its spirit a magical tree slowly lost its magic and became, O dreadful destiny, virtually mundane. It was a fate, many believed, worse than extinction."I'm sorry," the demoness said. "That means that you won't be entertaining me any more."Forrest had no idea where the nymph's tree was, but knew it was suffering similarly. He hoped there would be another nymph free to join it and save it. Meanwhile, he did know where Branch's tree was. But what could he do? Hecould not care for two trees; the relationship didn't work that way. He was bound to his sandalwood tree. He knew of no fauns looking for trees. There were more trees than amenable fauns and nymphs, so that some trees that might have flourished magically became ordinary. It was sad, because the right trees had much to offer their companion spirits, but true.Then he thought of something. It was a vanishingly tiny chance, but marginally better than nothing. "You're a spirit," he said to the demoness. "How would you like to adopt a tree?""You mean, become a tree dryad, so that I would live almost forever and always protect it?""Yes. It's a worthy occupation. It doesn't have to be a nymph. Any caring spirit will do, if the commitment is there. And the clogs would protect your feet.""Commitment. Protected feet." She tried to look serious, but smoke started puffing out her ears, and finally she exploded into a hilarious fireball. "Ho ho ho!"Then again, maybe the notion had been worse than nothing. Demons had no souls, because they were the degraded remnants of souls themselves. They cared for nothing and nobody. "Sorry I mentioned it.""Oh, I'm not! That was my laugh for the day." The smoke coalesced into the extraordinarily feminine female woman distaff luscious shape of girlish persuasion with the slightly translucent dress. "A tree nymph! You are a barrel of laughs." She formed into a brown barrel with brightly colored pancake-shaped laughs overflowing its rim.Forrest ignored her as well as he could, and headed for his home tree. How could he have been so stupid as to make such a suggestion to a demoness?She followed. "The oddest thing is that my better half well might have agreed, were she not otherwise occupied. She has half a soul. But also a half mortal child, so she's busy. I'm the half without the soul."As if he couldn't have guessed. "You could share the soul of the tree.""The soul of a shoe tree," she exclaimed, her laughter building up another head of steam. "A clog sole. Protecting my feet. Oh, hold me, somebody; I think I'm going to expire of mirth." Her body swelled until it burst and disappeared, leaving only a faint titter behind.This time, it seemed she really was gone. But Forrest didn't chance it; he walked directly back without looking around.When he returned and looked at the clog tree, his heart sank into his stomach. The poor thing was so droopy and sad. It was all that remained of his friend Branch. He had to do something to help it.He walked up and put a hand on the trunk. "Have confidence, clog tree. I will find you another spirit. Just give me time to do it."The tree must have heard him, because its leaves perked up and became greener. It knew him, because he had been near it many times, and was the friend of its faun. It trusted him to help it.He had promised, and he would do his best. Some folk thought that fauns and nymphs were empty-headed creatures, incapable of feeling or commitment, but those folk were confusing types. The creatures of the Faun and Nymph Retreat had no memory beyond a day, so every new day was a new adventure. But that was the magic of the retreat; any who left there started to turn real, which meant they aged and had memories. Some preserved their youth by finding useful jobs. Jewel the Nymph had taken on the chore of spreading gems throughout Xanth, so that others would have the delightful challenge of finding them, and later she had married a mortal man and become a grandmother. Many others had adopted magical trees, just as Forrest had. It was a kind of symbiosis, which was a fancy word meaning that the two got along great together and helped each other survive. The trees kept the fauns or nymphs young, because trees lived a long timeand their spirits shared that longevity. The fauns or nymphs protected their trees, bringing them water in times of drought and harassing woodsmen who wanted to chop the trees down. Nymphs had very effective ways to distract woodsmen, or to persuade them to spare their trees. Sometimes a nymph would even marry a woodsman, if that was what it took. But her first loyalty was always to her tree. Fauns had other ways, such as setting booby traps or informing large dragons where a nice man sized meal could be had near a certain tree. One way or another, they protected their timber, as well as enhancing the natural magic of the trees.But the sudden loss of Branch left t...
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