Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Board Stiff


Board Stiff (2013)
Kandy goes to a wishing well, telling it she is board stiff (making a mental typo), and wishes for adventure, excitement and romance. She gets turned into a stiff board.  She can still see because the board has knotholes for eyes.

Then a man called Ease arrives at the well.  His talent is to make hard things easy.  But he wants a challenge.  He had previously gone to Good Magician Humfrey to ask for this, but the Magician had nothing for him.  (Ease is mentioned in “Knot Gneiss”.  Magician Humfrey had regretted that he had not kept Ease for the Knot Gneiss quest; Ease’s talent would have made the quest easy for him.)

Ease decides he must wish for something specific from the wishing well. He wishes for the perfect weapon, the perfect adventure or the perfect woman. When nothing seems to happen, he sees the board, and takes it with him, to use as a club.

Kandy (in her form as a board) discovers she can project her thoughts to Ease, and influence him, although he thinks they are his own thoughts.  She suggests he go back to the Good Magician with a different question, and he decides to ask how he can achieve personal satisfaction.

Ease finds a place to sleep in the dry grass.  When he falls asleep, Kandy turns back into human form.  She realises she can only be human when Ease is asleep and touching her; when he wakes, she turns back into a board.  She is attracted to Ease, and finds the current arrangement frustrating.

Throughout this story, Ease keeps the board (Kandy) with him at all times – except for certain periods when they become separated.  So she generally sees the same things that he is seeing.  And when he is asleep and Kandy takes her human form, she must remain with him, with him touching her.

She sees a snake about to attack Ease.  She tries to wake him, but he doesn’t hear her voice, so she bites his ear.  He wakes, and she promptly turns back into a board.  He swings the board at the snake, but not accurately.  Kandy realises she can redirect the aim, and scores a hit on the snake.  It slithers off.

On the way to the Magician’s Castle, Ease stops at a shelter.  There is a red-haired girl there – she says her name is Cherry Centaur.  She can split into her two components: girl and horse.  The horse component, Red, is currently away in the wilderness, running with the horses.  Ease takes a nap. When Ease falls asleep, Kandy turns back into human.  She tries to speak to Cherry, but Cherry doesn’t hear her.  Kandy projects a thought, and Cherry detects something, but all she can see is a board.

Then Red, Cherry’s horse component, returns, and the two merge, becoming a centaur.  Ease wakes up and mentions seeing a dream girl in his sleep.

Ease arrives at the Good Magician’s Castle, and passes the Challenges.  He meets Humfrey’s daughter-in-law, Wira, who has a baby girl; Wira is trying to think of a name for her.  The child’s talent is summoning lizards, so Ease suggests the name Liz, which Wira is happy to accept.  Then Ease meets MareAnne, Humfrey’s Designated Wife of the Month.  (MareAnne is sometimes referred to as his half-wife.  She was his first love, but he didn’t marry her until she was returned from Hell, in “Question Quest” – it was a small ceremony.  So she has a lesser status than the other wives.)

Humfrey is not currently available to answer Ease’s Question, so Ease spends the night in the Castle.

After Ease falls asleep, and Kandy transforms, MareAnne enters the room and speaks to her.  She had detected from Ease’s speech that someone was prompting him with ideas, so she has used a ghost-seeing spell, which enables her to see Kandy.  But she believes that Kandy can make herself seen and heard by other people.

MareAnne wants Kandy to get Ease to take a female called Astrid with him on his quest, as a bodyguard.  And she wants Kandy to be a friend to Astrid.  MareAnne brings Astrid to meet Kandy.

Astrid is a basilisk who has been transformed into a human, in the hopes of finding a more fulfilling life. However she still has a deadly stare, so she wears dark sunglasses, and she has an intoxicating, and potentially poisonous, ambiance, which prevents people getting close to her for long. She wonders if this will prevent her forming a relationship with a human man.

MareAnne brings clothing for Astrid to wear.  Astrid selects a metallic grey dress with sequins.  But MareAnne hadn’t meant to bring this: it is the Sequins of Events – it is dangerous.  When a sequin is removed, and then replaced, an Event is triggered.  But Astrid insists that this is the dress she wants.

The next day, Ease sees the Good Magician, and (having forgotten about asking for personal satisfaction) asks how he can get the things he had wished for at the well: the perfect weapon, the perfect adventure or the perfect woman.  Humfrey says he already has these things, he only needs to realise it.

Humfrey tells him his Service (in payment for his Answer): he must find the antidote to a virus which is destroying puns.  Humfrey has forgotten some of the background information, which is in the Book of Lost Answers, and the Book itself is lost.  But he remembers one cryptic clue: “Merge the hair”.

When Ease leaves Humfrey’s study, he meets MareAnne, who introduces him to Astrid, as his companion and bodyguard for the quest.

They set off from the castle, not knowing where to go.  A sequin falls off Astrid’s dress, and the dress becomes translucent, showing the outline of her torso, and her underclothes, which causes Ease to stare.  Kandy prompts him to replace the sequin, so he does.  He has to hold his breath when he comes close to Astrid.  The dress becomes opaque again. But they have been transported to another location.

Com Pewter’s Cave
They are near Com Pewter’s cave.  An invisible giant herds them into the cave.

Com Pewter (or “Pewter”) has the power to alter reality in his vicinity.  He tries to force them to stay with him.  There is a struggle, with Pewter giving Ease and Astrid commands, and them trying to resist. But he doesn’t know about Kandy, whose prompting enables Ease to resist Pewter’s commands.

But then they tell Pewter about their quest.  Pewter, being a pun himself, is concerned about there being a virus, and decides to join their quest.  He transfers his consciousness into an android body.  He creates a firewall around the group, to defend against viruses: it initially appears as a wall of fire, then becomes invisible.  They leave the cave.

Another sequin falls off Astrid’s dress; the translucency of the dress puts Ease into a trance.  Kandy sends the thought to Astrid that Kandy should reveal herself to Pewter.  Astrid whispers to Pewter, and Pewter commands Ease to sleep.  Kandy appears and explains her situation to Pewter.  (Subsequently, as other people are added to the group she lets them know her identity, but she doesn’t inform Ease himself.)

Pewter wakes Ease up again, and then replaces the sequin on Astrid’s dress.

Tower and Islands
They are on an island, one of several.  There is a tower, with a girl in the turret at the top, who calls for help.  Her name is Tiara and she wants to be rescued.

Pewter uses his talent to change reality, and reveals a door which had been concealed by illusion, and unlocks the door.  They enter and ascend the spiral staircase to the turret.

Tiara welcomes them.  She is very pretty, but has unruly hair.  She says she has been confined here by her sisters since childhood, because she does not fit in: they all have neat hair, but hers is not.  (They wonder if this is relevant to the clue “Merge the hair”.)  She is a day less than 18 years old.

Pewter examines her hair, and concludes that it resists gravity: it tries to float or fly away.  This must be Tiara’s magic talent.  Under certain circumstances, it may enable Tiara to float or fly.

They all descend the stairs and exit the tower.

Tiara tells them about the various islands nearby.  There is an inn, where they can stay the night, on the Isle of Missed (where women go looking for men).

A sequin comes off Astrid’s dress and falls into a spring.  But this is the source of a Lethe stream, which makes people lose their memories.  Ease uses the board to fish the sequin out – not knowing that the board is actually Kandy, who could lose her memory.  But fortunately Pewter had used his talent to null the Lethe water touching the board.

But they are not ready for a new Event yet, so they do not replace the sequin.  Pewter uses his talent to make the dress opaque.  He also uses his talent to make Tiara’s hair neat.

They find a boat and cross to the Isle of Missed, and stay at the inn.  When Ease sleeps, Kandy transforms.  Pewter makes a chessboard materialise, and teaches her how to play chess, to pass the time. (This activity will often recur in the story.)

But Tiara’s hair will only stay neat as long as she remains in Pewter’s vicinity.  They invite her to come with them.

Pewter replaces the sequin on Astrid’s dress.

The Village of Punic Curse
They arrive near the village of Punic Curse – it is called this because it has more puns than anywhere else.  They meet a man and a horse.  The man’s name is Mitch; he is the Master of Ceremonies for the celebration of the Pun: the villagers have decided to regard the prevalence of puns as a blessing rather than a curse.  The horse is the mare of the village (equivalent to what we in Mundania would call a mayor).

Ease introduces the group to Mitch and tells him about their quest.  Evidently the virus has not reached the village yet, but they are especially at risk.

The celebration proceeds, with music and dancing.  The members of Ease’s group join in.

But suddenly various people and objects start dissolving.  The pun virus has arrived.

Mitch’s talent is to fetch and send ideas.  He makes use of this to organise the people to escape the virus.

Pewter goes to an old walled fort, and sets up his firewall around it.  All the people who are puns, or who are carrying objects which are puns, gather in the fort.

Mitch admires Tiara’s hair, which has become unruly again.  It seems that the two of them are becoming quite friendly.

Ease’s group plus Mitch goes to fetch food and water for the people; they cook the food using fire from the firewall.

Demoness Metria arrives. (This mischievous demoness appears in most of the stories, seeking out interesting things.)  Hearing about Tiara’s problem with her hair, she turns to smoke and settles into Tiara’s hair, making it tidy.

But Pewter is having difficulty maintaining the firewall against the virus.  They will have to move on, taking the villagers with them.  The people gather round.  Tiara removes a sequin from Astrid’s dress and then replaces it.

Caprice Castle
They have arrived at Caprice Castle, the home of Princess Dawn, her husband Picka Bone (a walking skeleton) and their two 2-year-old children Piton and Data. (Dawn and Picka’s story is in “Well-Tempered Clavicle”.)   Dawn touches Mitch, and because of her talent, instantly knows the whole story.  The hosts organise the accommodation for everyone.

Ease’s group and Mitch sit with Dawn and Picka and discuss the situation.  Dawn and Picka, as the proprietors of Caprice Castle, have the duty of collecting and storing puns.  The quest group are concerned that Dawn and Picka’s goal is contrary to their goal of protecting puns and eliminating the virus, but Dawn reassures them: she and Picka eliminate puns which spread too widely, but release them as required.  They will assist the villagers in finding a new location for their village.

Mitch is wearing a hair shirt.  He reveals that this is actually his hair – hanging from his head and wrapped around him.  As with Tiara, the group wonder whether this relates to the clue “Merge the hair”.  In case this is so, Dawn suggests that Mitch join the quest.  They discuss it and agree.

The next day, the questers are ready to move on.  Tiara removes a sequin and replaces it.

Centaur Isle
They find themselves in a pavilion.  It is the receiving centre for Centaur Isle.  A male centaur introduces himself as Chase Centaur.  Ease introduces the group and explains their quest.

Land-based centaurs (as opposed to flying centaurs) – especially those of Centaur Isle – consider magic to be obscene, and Chase wants them to depart, but Pewter argues that Chase is obliged to assist them in their quest.  Chase reluctantly agrees, but insists that they pay their way.  The centaurs have a historian who might help them.  There is also a difficulty that the group can help with.

A female centaur, Curvia, arrives; she will be their hostess.  She explains that centaurs do tolerate magic when practised by the humans living among them and working for them, whom they regard as an inferior species.

Chase and Curvia need to take them somewhere.  Tiara rides on Curvia’s back – this gives Curvia time to educate Tiara in the things of the Adult Conspiracy; Tiara has been secluded in a tower all her life, but is now old enough to learn about it.  The other four travel in a huge pram, which Chase pushes.  They travel along rapidly.

Chase tells them about the difficulty.  Centaurs do not make use of storks – their method of reproduction is more direct.  However, humans living amongst them do summon the stork.  But Centaur Isle is a low-magic zone, and storks cannot easily handle it.  Normally the human mother goes to the Xanth mainland to meet the stork, and brings the baby back to Centaur Isle.

But in this case there is a woman called Allergy – she is allergic to magic, and cannot return to the Xanth mainland.  The quest group must go to meet the stork themselves.

Associated with Centaur Isle are a string of small islands called keys, with paths connecting them.  The group continue along the keys until they come to the last one before the mainland, where they meet Allergy and her husband Robert.  They spend the night there.

In the morning they take a boat across to the mainland – this part is the Gold Coast. The stork arrives with a bundle.  Tiara steps forward and explains the situation.  The stork is reluctant to deliver the baby to a person who is not the mother (that is, to a “surrogate mother”), but Pewter uses his talent to make the stork change its mind.  The stork gives Tiara the baby boy, and they return across the water and deliver him to Allergy.

Chase and Curvia take them back to Centaur Island.  They come to a town, where Cognition Centaur, the historian, lives.  He has done some research and discovered a legend.  Long ago there was a Magician who created a virus that melted puns: no doubt this is the virus which is now plaguing Xanth.  He had also created the anti-virus, which he had given to a Sorceress whom he was courting.  Subsequently the Magician and the Sorceress married. The Sorceress had beautiful hair – a characteristic she passed on to her descendants.  The questers should try to find those descendants.  But Cognition does not know who or where they are.

It is time to move on.  Tiara removes a sequin from Astrid’s dress and replaces it.

They find themselves on board a spaceship.  Magician Grey Murphy is the captain. He explains to the gathered crew that some years previously, a spaceship with centaurs on board had set off to colonise a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. (This is mentioned in “Knot Gneiss”.)  The centaurs had sent reports back for a while, but then their reports had stopped.  This spaceship’s mission is to investigate.

There are various humans and centaurs on board.  The three 18-year-old princesses, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm (who are all Sorceresses) have been assigned the role of Special Assault Team.

Kandy discovers to her surprise that the members of the quest have also been assigned as crew of the spaceship: Ease is First Officer, Astrid is Chief Engineer, Mitch is Communications Officer, Tiara is Refreshments Officer, Pewter is Ship AI (Artificial Intelligence).  And surprisingly, they know all the correct technobabble.

Pewter tells the quest group that they are in a dream, in the gourd.  [However, as the story develops, it makes more sense that this is really happening, rather than being a dream.  But that being so, how do the quest group know how to perform their duties as crew?  And how do they come to be in those positions?]

Metria, still in Tiara’s hair, says how ridiculous this all is, and complains about a science fiction theme polluting their fantasy world.

The ship goes to warp speed, and eventually arrives at the centaurs’ planet, which is called Alpha.  Mitch, the Communications Officer, tries to contact the colony.  A centaur appears on the screen, welcomes them and invites them to land.  Mitch asks why they hadn’t been in contact.  The centaur says he is sure it was an oversight.

But then the screen splits, and another centaur appears, haggard in appearance.  He warns them not to land, it is a trap.

The captain and crew conclude that the centaurs are captive to a dark power.  They need to discuss what to do.

Metria says it is obvious: Demoness Fornax is responsible; she has opposed Demon Xanth on several occasions (see for example “Swell Foop”).  The captain addresses Metria and she leaves Tiara’s hair and materialises in human form.  She explains the nature of Senior Demons.  Fornax lives in the far Fornax Galaxy, which is contra-terrene (anti-matter).

Ease volunteers to be beamed down to the planet, to distract Fornax, while the ship lands on the opposite side of the planet to rescue the centaurs.  The three princesses volunteer to come with Ease, disguised as buttons on his jacket.

So Ease beams down.  The land appears to be a paradise.  But the princesses tell him that this is illusion; it is instead a barren plain, with centaurs in chains, breaking up rocks for Fornax’s mining operation.

A beautiful woman approaches; she looks exactly like Kandy.  This is Fornax, who has read Ease’s mind, and made herself appear as his dream girl.  She offers him her love – but first he must contact the ship and tell them it is safe to land.  When he hesitates, she offers to provide information for the quest – about the five maidens with wonderful hair, who are the descendants of the Magician who created the anti-virus.

But then Fornax realises the ship has landed on the opposite side of the planet.  She transports them there.  The crew are talking with the haggard centaurs.  Fornax declares that she will demand a ransom of a Demon Status Point for the release of them all.

Arnolde Centaur, the ship’s Magic Officer, stands up to her.  Angry, Fornax strikes him with lightning.  But Arnolde transforms into Demon Xanth.  (There is a character called Arnolde Centaur in previous stories – see for example “Centaur Aisle” – presumably it is his form that Demon Xanth had taken.)  Demon Xanth has the upper hand, because this is his home galaxy.  Fornax will have to pay a Status Point – this will be decided by a Council of Demons.  In the meantime, Fornax will be confined to her home galaxy, under supervised house arrest.  The princesses volunteer to be the supervisors.  They will be under Demon Xanth’s protection.  Fornax and the princesses disappear.

The captain offers to rescue the centaurs, but now that they are free, they wish to stay and develop the planet.

The next morning, the members of the quest decide to move on.  They explain to the captain.  The princesses appear and support their story.  (The princesses are in fact still in the Fornax Galaxy, but are appearing through an ad hoc illusion.)  The princesses explain that the questers had replaced some of the original crew, but now those crew members will return to take their positions.

Tiara removes a sequin from Astrid’s dress and replaces it.

The Fornax Galaxy
The group find themselves in a suite of rooms, which turns out to be in a castle.  There is a plaque which says, “Welcome Honored Members of the Quest.” Is someone expecting them?

While Pewter stays in their suite, the others explore the corridor, and find many rooms, which are all empty.  The corridor brings them round in a circle back to their starting point.

They go down a floor.  While Astrid and Ease stay in one spot, Tiara and Mitch explore the rooms along the corridor.

Astrid and Ease see three figures approaching.  It is the three princesses – Melody, Harmony and Rhythm!  The quest group must have been transported to the Fornax Galaxy!   Fornax must have hijacked their Event.  But why would she do that?  Is she still interested in Ease?

The princesses move on, and Mitch and Tiara return: all the rooms are empty.  They return to the floor above.  Pewter tells how he had met the princesses too; they had talked about how sand could be used against contra-terrene creatures.  But things don’t add up: the princesses which Astrid and Ease had met must have been Fornax in disguise.

The castle and everything in it must be terrene material, so that the questers and the princesses can survive within it.  The questers have a meal together, then split up to go to separate rooms for a rest.  Tiara and Mitch share a room; they have become lovers.

Ease looks out the window of his room, and sees Fornax – again in the form of Ease’s dream girl – sunning herself in a pavilion.  Ease, attracted to her, runs down the stairs, exits the castle, and starts across the path to her.  Kandy is alarmed that he will fall under Fornax’s power: she calls out mentally to the others.  But Astrid is asleep, Mitch and Tiara are busy with their lovemaking, Pewter is difficult to reach, and the princesses seem to be out of range.  That leaves Metria; Kandy explains to her what is happening and asks her to contact the others.

Demoness Mentia – Metria’s alter ego – appears on the path, and tries to persuade Ease to return to the castle with her. (Usually Metria and Mentia occupy the same body, but sometimes Mentia splits off and leads an independent life. It seems that Metria had not wanted to leave Tiara’s hair.)  But Fornax, having greater Demonic power, banishes Mentia back to the castle.  But now the princesses appear on the scene, and threaten to report Fornax.  Then Astrid and Pewter arrive.  They all begin to escort Ease back.

Fornax retaliates by summoning various creatures: a dragon, an ogre, a sphinx and a herd of rhino-potta-phants.  The group fight and defeat them, and return to the castle.

Mentia is waiting in Ease’s room.  It seems likely that they will make love; Kandy, being in the form of the board, has no choice but to remain while this occurs, and she wants Ease for herself.  But before anything can happen, Fornax appears and banishes Mentia again.  She offers Ease her love, in exchange for him becoming her agent in the terrene realm: it would be easier if she didn’t always have to be physically present in the realm, as she has to create a contra-terrene screen each time.

Kandy tries something she hadn’t tried before; she projects a command to Ease to sleep.  And he does.  But this means Kandy transforms, and is visible to Fornax.  Fornax is surprised; she hadn’t realised the form she had taken was that of a real woman.

But now she offers a similar deal to Kandy: if Kandy becomes Fornax’s agent, Fornax will reward her.  Kandy objects that Fornax is the enemy; she had enslaved and maltreated the centaurs.  Fornax puts things in a different light: she had taken over the planet, intending to get Demon Xanth to pay a ransom.  The centaurs had refused to work and had gone on a hunger strike.  She had only put the chains on them when the rescue party had arrived, to emphasise the hostage situation.  They would have been freed once the ransom had been paid.

Fornax gives Kandy a year to consider the offer.

Later, Kandy discusses this with the others, including the princesses (but excluding Ease of course).  The others agree that this would be an acceptable deal, as long as she made it clear that she would not harm anyone.

It is time to move on.  Tiara removes a sequin from Astrid’s dress and replaces it.

They find themselves in space, falling towards the world of Pyramid, one of the moons of Ida.

(Princess Ida has a tiny moon, Ptero, orbiting her head. It is possible for people from Xanth to travel to this world and when they are there, the moon appears to be a full-size world. Ptero has counterparts of all Xanth’s characters, and also others who could potentially exist in Xanth.

Ptero also contains a Princess Ida, who has another moon, Pyramid, orbiting her head, and so on.  In a similar way to the moon Ptero, Pyramid has counterparts of some of the characters in Xanth.

Up to the time of “Air Apparent” it had been necessary for a person’s soul to be released from their body, and they would travel to Ida’s moons in spirit form.  But the understanding of Ida’s moons changed at the end of “Air Apparent”, and it is possible to travel to them in other ways.)

Pewter explains that the magic of Pyramid is different from that of Xanth: giving something to someone, or doing a favour for someone, results in the giver becoming physically bigger, and the receiver becoming physically smaller.  Most people try to make even trades.

They land on the grey side, which is the underside of the pyramid.  They are not far from Pyramid’s version of the Good Magician’s Castle.  Maybe they should go in and ask this world’s version of the Good Magician where the virus antidote is.

They pass the Challenges and enter the Castle, and meet Wira, the Good Magician’s daughter-in-law.  She explains that things are different from Xanth here: instead of taking turns a month at a time, all of Humfrey’s wives are present at the same time; a different wife comes on duty each hour.

But there is a problem.  MareAnne had signalled the stork, but Humfrey has made the stork handle the Challenges to get in.  But the stork couldn’t do it, so the baby hasn’t been delivered.

But MareAnne is very generous; she is always doing favours for others.  The castle protects her from increasing in size.  But if she leaves the castle, she will become a giantess, and won’t be able to get back in.

The group decides to get the baby for her, as the Service for their Answer.  They have had experience of this kind of thing in Centaur Isle.

Astrid and Tiara go with Wira to see MareAnne, and get her written authorisation to receive the baby.

The group leaves the castle to meet the stork.  It turns out to be the same stork they met near Centaur Isle.  The stork protests, but hands over the baby to Tiara, who delivers it to MareAnne.

Now Wira escorts the group to see the Good Magician.  Ease asks the Question, “Where is the pun virus antidote?”

Humfrey says this is the wrong Question.  But he gives the Answer.  The antidote is on another world of Ida; Princess Ida can direct them to it.  But the radiation in space between the worlds, and the differing magic of the worlds, denatures it, and it won’t work in Xanth.  They should have asked, “Where in Xanth is the portal that accesses Planet Antidote directly?”

Dara Demoness, one of the wives, suggests that they go and see Princess Ida, on the Blue Face of the planet.

So they make their way to the Blue Face and to Princess Ida’s home.  Ida invites them in.  They explain their quest.  She can’t tell them about the portal, but she displays an image of Planet Antidote on the wall.  It is a watery planet, with purple waves crashing against a yellow beach at dawn.

Ida asks that they tell her the news of Xanth.  She had heard that her counterpart in Xanth had married (this happened in “Knot Gneiss”) but she herself is not married. [In “Cube Route”, Ida of Pyramid seemed destined to marry Magician Jaycn.  Maybe the marriage didn’t go ahead, or came to an end.  Although I suspect the author had forgotten about that previous reference.]

They stay the night with Ida, and move on the next day.

Back in Xanth: Pea Soup, Stream, Troll Cave
They arrive back in Xanth, in a pea-soup fog.  Metria hates this, and leaves Tiara’s hair and departs.

They have trouble making their way through the fog.  Kandy sends a thought to Ease, which he passes on to Mitch.  Mitch should use his talent to send an idea to the fog, that it has business elsewhere.  Mitch tries this and the fog clears.

They see evidence that the virus is nearby.  Pewter puts up his firewall.

They are covered in pea soup; they all strip and wash in a stream.  But the stream washes the board and their clothes away, including Astrid’s dress with sequins.  Kandy projects her thought to the others, calling for help.  The questers chase after their clothing and the board.

The stream enters a cave.  A troll collects the board and all the clothes and throws them onto a high shelf.  Kandy sends a warning message about the troll to Ease, not knowing whether it will work at this distance.  Astrid enters.  She suggests that the troll not eat her yet, but play with her for a while.  But after a few moments her ambiance intoxicates him, and he falls unconscious.  She calls the others to come in.  They find the board and their clothes.  They light a fire and dry their clothes, and then put them on.  But one of the sequins of Astrid’s dress is missing.  It must have been carried further along by the stream.

But the stream continues through an underground tunnel.  They will need an underwater boat – a submarine – to go further.  They find a boot: it is labelled “Das Boot”.  Pewter knows that “boot” is “boat” in some Mundane language.  He says the words “Das Boot” and the boot changes into a submarine boat.  They get in (it is a tight squeeze) and continue along the stream.

Finally they emerge into a larger cave and get out of the submarine.  They hunt around and find the sequin.  Tiara attaches it to Astrid’s dress.

PLO Village
They arrive in a region clear of puns, near a village.  They enter the village and are met by a man called Giles, the mayor of the village.  They explain their quest.  Giles takes them to a tavern and provides them with a meal.  He tells them that the people of this village don’t like puns, and would prefer that they are all destroyed.  He suggests they give up their quest.  But the questers say they will keep on with it.

But then they all become sleepy – except for Pewter, who doesn’t eat or sleep.  The food had been drugged!  Soon they are all asleep, with Pewter faking it.

The mayor returns with some other people.  He talks about putting them into an oubliette and then putting them on trial in two days time.  After that they will be fed to a dragon.

The people take them to a wagon and transport them to the ruins of a castle.  They lower the questers down into a hole one by one, on a palette that uses a rope and pulley.  The hole leads to an underground chamber – the oubliette.

One by one the questers wake up.  There are another two people in the oubliette: a man and a woman, brother and sister, called Pastor and Futura.  They explain that they are all victims of the PLO – the Pun Liberation Organisation.  This village is intolerant of anything to do with puns.  The prisoners will have to submit to a mock trial and then will be disposed of.

Pastor’s talent is to reinvent the past: if he convinces enough people that a certain past event occurred, it comes true.  Futura’s talent is similar: it is to reinvent the future.  She can tell stories about far off lands, and if enough people believe it, those lands will exist.  However these talents are of little use in their current circumstances.

Pastor and Futura have searched the chamber, but found no way out.  But there are wasps here; the group follows the wasps and sees them flying through what is apparently a solid brick.  They check and discover the brick is an illusion.  It is big enough for someone to get out.

The questers explain that they were probably brought here for a purpose, and haven’t achieved it yet.  They have a way out if necessary.  Pastor and Futura exit via the tunnel where the illusory brick is.  They will go around the village convincing people that puns are not bad.

Two more women are lowered into the oubliette.  Their names are Tani and Terri.  Tani’s talent is to make a pet of any non-human creature.  Terri’s talent is to jump forward to the next morning, to escape the sadness of a given day.

And this business is making Terri depressed.  She says she will jump to the next morning, and slumps down.  But now she speaks again.  She is Tammi, Terri’s alter ego.  She is the original personality, but her talent spooked people, so she was banished and Terri put in her place.  Terri doesn’t know of her existence.  Tammi’s talent is to see through conspiracies.  This includes the Adult Conspiracy, which is what upset people in the first place.  She has detected that there is a conspiracy in this village: there are four conspirators who are seeking to gain power.  This does not include Mayor Giles, who is just a figurehead.

They work out a plan to escape.  A man comes to the hole above, to provide food for them, but he insists Astrid comes to him first, so he can have his way with her.  Astrid is raised on the pallet.  But she soon calls down that her ambiance has intoxicated the man, and he is unconscious.  This enables them all to escape on the pallet.

Tammi and Astrid go off to locate the conspirators and render them unconscious.  The others locate the other oubliette containing the dragon.  Tani is lowered down to tame the dragon, and then the others follow.  But the dragon is an educated talking dragon.  He doesn’t eat people; he sends them into the catacombs for the cats, who send them along to the goblins.  The dragon doesn’t know what happens to them after that.

Astrid and Tammi return with the unconscious conspirators.  The conspirators are lowered down into the dragon’s lair; they will have the job of keeping the lair clean in future.

Tammi and Tani leave for the next village.

Tiara removes a sequin from Astrid’s dress and replaces it.

They arrive at a wide plain with lots of strange coloured clouds floating past. One of them rains down yellow pellets in the form of letters of the alphabet.

Pewter says this reminds him of a virus on the Outernet which infected machines like him; making letters of a document fall to the floor.  He concludes that these are not regular clouds, they are animations of Outernet clouds: storage bins of information for anyone to use.  Maybe the group’s purpose here is to get rid of these viruses.  And by tackling this kind of virus, they may get an idea how to defeat the pun virus.

A grey cloud comes low and envelops them.  They find themselves in a room with several doors, labeled “File”, “Edit”, “View”, “Format”, “Tools” and “Help”.  Pewter knocks on the File door and leads them to another room with another set of doors with labels.  He tells them there are a huge number of options.  It is all very confusing.

Ease opens a door that says “Do Not Open”.  A whole lot of metal bugs come out.  Pewter says they are viruses in the form of bots.

But they discover that they are not harmed by the viruses when they are outside of Pewter’s firewall.  They need to find the source of these viruses.  If they encouter viruses trying to stop them, they will know they are on the right track.  They split up, Mitch with Tiara and Astrid with Ease.  Pewter gives them fragments of his android hair: they are cells, and can be used as cell phones to keep in contact.

But soon some bigger bots find and capture them all and dump them in the Discard Dungeon for old discarded software.  The chute they came down on is slippery, so they can’t go back.

Pewter says they may be able to find the viruses’ weakness by locating older viruses from which the newer ones were developed.  In this Discard Dungeon they should be able to find the old obsolete operating systems: Captain M (CPM), Ms Dos (MSDOS), Xinu etc.

They enter Captain M’s building and meet the crusty old sea captain.  Then they leave along the paths until they meet a middle-aged woman – Ms Dos riding on the back of a bat.  They ask her where the Reset Button is. She tells them to follow the bat – it is Auto Exec Bat.  The bat leads them to an outhouse.

But the outhouse is surrounded by several huge Bugs; they can’t get through.  A man in a colourful costume and cape arrives.  It is Xinu.  Pewter asks for his help, for the sake of his virtual stepson, Xunil.  Xinu scares all the Bugs away.  Pewter goes into the outhouse and presses the Button.

They return to the chute.  Astrid finds a stickum plant.  She breaks open one of its fruit and applies the juice to the slide.  This enables them to climb back up.

All the viruses are gone.  They exit from the cloud.

The next morning they invoke another sequin.

They are in a maze within a cornfield.  This would be a maize maze, except that the pun virus has been through, and that pun no longer exists.

They all split up and explore.  Ease finds a chamber with a metal plate.  He uses the board to pry up the plate.  There is a dark hole, with a passage below; maybe it is an access tunnel.

Astrid calls the others on her cell phone; she has found a large gate to what looks like a zoo.  There are pink elephants there.

They all join her at the gate.  But the elephants are cardboard pictures.  It is a trap.  The gate opens and invisible giants herd them inside.  The giants pick them up and take off their clothes, then put them down.  The group follow a path and come to a glass house which is where their captors expect them to live.  Their clothes are there in locked glass closets.  This is a zoo, but they are the zoo specimens.

They look through the window, and there is a family of large purple snails peering at them.  These must be alien visitors from another planet.

They leave the house and discover separate enclosures for dragons, centaurs, goblins and harpies.  Ease notices an access panel like the one in the maze.  They return to the house.

That night when Ease goes to sleep, Kandy talks to Astrid.  They discuss the access panels and the passages, and Kandy suggests that Ease get out and find a way to free the others.  Astrid wakes Ease and proposes this to him, and he agrees.

Ease goes out, opens the access panel, and gets onto the slide below. (It seems to be designed for alien zookeepers, like the snails they had seen.)  He is able to scoot along the passageway.  He eventually finds an access panel that gets him out of the zoo, back in the cornfield maze.  He sleeps there.

But the giants know he has escaped.  Over the next day they try in various ways to trap him.  But with Kandy’s guidance he remains free.  He checks whether the creatures in the other enclosures want to be freed, but none of them do.

That night, Ease opens the gate and returns to the glass house.  The others join him.  He uses the board to break the glass closet, and they reclaim their clothes.  Tiara removes a sequin from Astrid’s dress and replaces it.

Fracto and the Island of Doctor Moribund
They are in a pleasant moonlit scene.  A cloud hovers over a lake.  They sleep until morning.

The cloud is still there; Pewter recognises it as Fracto, currently small and quiet, but potentially the worst of storm clouds.

But Fracto starts to expand.  Ease taunts him; but Fracto hears this and the storm builds up and the rain comes down.

They look for a shelter. Mitch sees a canopy – that is, a can o’ pea – a sealed can of pea mash.  It is a pun; he tells it to manifest.  The can expands to a huge size and the top pops up.  They get in and the lid serves as a canopy, to shelter them from the storm. And they can eat the pea mash.

The water rises and the can floats along on what seems like an inland sea.  Astrid apologises to Fracto for Ease’s rudeness; the storm stops and Fracto disappears.

There is an island in sight.  A mermaid approaches them in the water.  She asks for a lift to the island, as she can’t swim very well.  Ease helps her into the can.  They can see that her tail is malformed.  She says her name is Mexine; she has a congenital abnormality.

She tells them the island is the infamous Island of Doctor Moribund.  He performs weird experiments on people.  But she thinks he is half-cute.

Mexine leaves the can for the water just before they reach the island.  The can hits a rock on the shore and tips them all out.

They are met by Frank (Frankenstein Monster), Dr Moribund’s assistant, who seems to have been assembled from various body parts.  He invites them to go with him to Dr M’s mansion.  When they refuse, he activates a knockout wand, and they all fall down unconscious, with Pewter faking it.  Kandy starts to manifest, but the board is knocked loose from Ease’s hand, and lands separately.

Frank piles them into a wagon.  Pewter grabs the board.  Frank hauls the wagon to the mansion, and takes them into Dr M’s lab.

There is a wild-haired, wild-eyed woman called Maddy, in a cell.  She is constantly making rude comments.  She is not pretty, except for her legs.

Dr M instructs Frank to put Astrid in a waist-high cavity in a counter (Slot 1) and Ease in another cavity (Slot 2).  Frank activates the wand again, and everyone regains consciousness.

Leaving them to recover, Dr M and Frank go to get something to eat.

Pewter tells them they are in the laboratory of Dr Moribund.  Maddy tells them she is crazy.  She hates everyone, including herself and just wants to commit suicide.  Her friends had brought her here, hoping that Dr M could help her.  Pewter says Dr M apparently likes to look at her legs.

Dr M and Frank return.  Dr M tells them he is going to swap the lower halves of Astrid and Ease.  Astrid points out that she is a transformed basilisk; such a swap will kill them both.  She removes her glasses and gazes at him with one eye, momentarily stunning him.

Mitch throws the board to Ease.  Kandy commands Ease to sleep and manifests as human.

In what follows, they escape Dr M, but also find a solution which moderates his activity in the future.  During this time Tiara removes a sequin from Astrid’s dress, but is unable to replace it until certain things are resolved.  Then she replaces it.

Gap Chasm and Goblins
The quest group find themselves at the brink of the Gap Chasm.  Pewter tells them that they are currently at the invisible bridge, which is also a one-way bridge.  (The nature of the bridges over the Gap Chasm seems to vary over time.  At times in the past, there have been separate bridges: an invisible bridge and a one-way bridge.)

But the group doesn’t feel like crossing the chasm yet.  They explore the nearby jungle and then come to a goblin mound.

But something is strange.  The goblins are ignoring them rather than attacking them.  Astrid goes to talk to a goblin woman.

Her name is Glinda.  She tells Astrid that it is election day.  Her husband Glower is running for chief of the Good Riddance Goblins, and can’t be bothered capturing strangers.  She will send her daughter, Glenna, to sneak some food to them.

Astrid asks what they can do in return.  Glinda tells her that Glenna has a special herb garden, and she is missing one rare plant, the Grave Expectations.  Astrid has seen one in the jungle; they will go and get it.  It will need poisonous ambiance for several hours after being transplanted, which she can provide.

Glinda calls Glenna and introduces her to Astrid.  The group takes Glenna with them as they return to the jungle to collect the plant.

They return to the goblin mound.  The election is over; Glower has won, and now wants to cook the intruders.  But Glenna tells him they are her friends, and Glinda points out that they are helping Glenna with her garden.  The group stays at the goblin mound overnight, while Astrid stays near the Grave Expectations plant.

In the morning Pewter tells Glower’s family about the threat of the pun virus.  It could destroy Glenna’s garden.  Glinda knows of the location of a chemistree, that has potion bottles as fruit.  Although not the same as an anti-virus, the potions could protect the garden.

Glinda and Glenna lead the way to the chemistree.  Pewter and Astrid need to check the contents of the bottles.  Glinda tells them of a campsite the rest of them can visit, which is called Grong Grong.

So they head off to it. It initially seems pleasant, but then they encounter so many hazards that they conclude it is a bad camping site.  Then Glinda remembers: Grong Grong is a warning not to visit the place. [Grong Grong is the name of a town in Australia.  Its name comes from an Australian Aboriginal term for “bad camping ground”. No doubt this is where the author got the name from.]

They return to the chemistree, where Pewter and Astrid have finished their investigation.  Pewter tells Glenna to make a channel around the garden and pour some of each potion into it.

Tiara removes a sequin, but it won’t reattach.  Their Event must not be complete.  They stay another night at the goblin mound.

In the morning they return to the Gap Chasm.  They start across the invisible bridge.

But then they are attacked by three flying dragons: a fire-breather, a steamer and a smoker.  Astrid uses her deadly gaze on them.  The first crashes to the ground, the second explodes, but the third collides with Astrid.  She is falling to her death!

Kandy calls out to the Demoness Fornax.  The scene freezes.  Kandy tells Fornax that she will be Fornax’s representative if Fornax saves Astrid.

The scene unfreezes.  A roc bird appears – it is Roxanne (see for example “Roc and a Hard Place”) – and rescues Astrid in her talon, and deposits her back on the bridge.  Everyone marvels at the coincidence that saved Astrid.

But the scene freezes again.  Demon Xanth appears in his donkey-headed dragon form.  He had detected Fornax’s intervention.  Kandy tells him what happened, including the deal she had made with Fornax to be her agent.  She asks Demon Xanth to accept her as that agent.  He agrees and disappears.  Then he reappears: his wife Chlorine has asked him to do Kandy a favour or two, for her sacrifice and service.  He will do this.

The group completes the crossing.

The End of the Quest
In the morning they try the sequin again: it attaches to the dress, but nothing happens.  But their quest is not finished.  They try to work out why this would be.  Pewter suggests that it was Fornax who had provided the Sequins of Events dress, for her own purposes.  Now that she has achieved her goal, the sequins no longer operate.  The Sequins of Events dress hadn’t been intended to help them in their quest for the antivirus.

Ease suggests that Pewter check his data banks again, to find information about the descendants of the Magician who created the anti-virus.  Pewter does, and finds a data file he had overlooked.  Maybe a Demon had added it.  The descendants live in the South Village.

They set off along the enchanted path.  They stop at a campsite for the night.  They are joined by a man called Art, who is an artist.  He wears dark glasses like Astrid.  He likes to paint pretty women, but he tends to fall in love with them.

He says he would like to paint Astrid.   Astrid points out that she is a basilisk; he should not fall in love with her, as she would poison him.  Art says he is immune to poison.  He has cyan coloured eyes – he is cyan-eyed (or cyanide).  Just like Astrid he has a poisonous glance.  Both leave their glasses on and embrace and kiss.  He is not harmed by her ambiance or her breath.

Art proceeds to paint Astrid.  Art and Astrid are in love.  So Art has now joined their group.

The next day they continue on and come to the South Village.

Metria returns to them.  They tell her they are looking for five maidens with wonderful hair (the description Fornax had given Ease).  Metria goes off to find them, and returns, telling them which house they live in.

They make their way to the house.  They knock, and five girls come to the door: they have brown, black, red, yellow and blue hair respectively.  They all have their hair braided and tied back.  They are named according to the colour of their hair, and their dresses match their hair colour.

Mitch explains what they are seeking.  The girls say that they are the grandchildren of the Magician who created the virus and the anti-virus.  But they don’t know where the antidote is.

Pewter mentions the hint “Merge the hair”.  The girls say that their hair is constantly trying to merge, which is a nuisance.  That is why they tie their hair back.  They have to stay clear of each other.  They are constantly quarrelling.  But they are sisters: they can’t bear to live separately from each other.  They have been given a prediction that a quest would come by and solve their problem.

Red and Black demonstrate how their hair tries to merge.  They untie their hair and come close to each other.  Each girl’s hair reaches towards the other and it tangles together.  It is a difficult job separating it.

Kandy has the thought that all the sisters should merge their hair.  She sends the thought to Ease, who says it out loud.  The sisters are taken aback by the idea.  But they proceed with it.  They all untie their hair and then approach each other in a circle.  Their hair intertwines, and then their bodies merge.

There is a single beautiful woman there, holding an urn.  She looks like the sisters, but her hair is a glittering array of colours.  She says her name is Merge: now she is whole; the five sisters had been fragments of her.  The urn is the portal to the planet containing the antidote; she tips it, and a shining liquid flows out onto the floor.

Merge can travel around Xanth, pouring the antidote on the virus.  But she will need a companion for protection.  She suggests that Ease will be that companion, and she will be his woman.  She kisses him.

But Ease says she is not his dream girl.  He realises that he never sees his board and his dream girl at the same time.  He kisses the board.  It transforms into Kandy and the kiss continues.  They are surrounded by floating hearts.

But now each member of the quest group tells Merge they will travel with her, continuing the mission.