Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Heaven Cent

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Heaven Cent (1988)
Prince Dolph, the 9-year-old son of King Dor and Queen Irene, decides to go searching for the missing Good Magician Humfrey. His parents insist on him taking an adult companion, so he takes Marrow Bones, the walking skeleton.

Dolph is a shape-shifter; he can transform himself to any living creature. This is handy for fighting off attackers, travelling, and making use of other creatures’ abilities.  Typically he transforms into an ogre for fighting, or a roc (a huge bird) for travelling long distances.

Dolph and Marrow arrive at the Magician’s Castle.  They search all the rooms, and then discover a hidden room.  In it they find a paper with the message: “Skeleton Key to Heaven Cent”.  This must be a clue to finding the Good Magician. The Skeleton Key must enable them to find the Heaven Cent, which should lead them to Magician Humfrey.

Marrow suggests that the “skeleton key” may refer to the coral islands along the coast: some islands are referred to as keys, and they are built on the skeletons of the coral organisms.  The orientation of the paper suggests the direction to the Isle of Illusion, on the east coast.

When someone kicks Marrow, his bones fly apart, and he can rearrange them into a different formation.  So when they reach the coast, he reorganises his bones into a boat, so they can cross to the Isle of Illusion.

The Isle of Illusion is filled with magnificent buildings. But it is all illusion; this island is where Iris, the Sorceress of Illusion, had previously lived; her talent has left her and returned to her old home.  They send a message to Iris about this.  They meet a female walking skeleton, Gracile (Grace’l) Ossein.  It seems she had accidentally left the dream realm (also referred to as “the gourd” or “the gourd realm”) and found herself on the island.  They search the island, but the Heaven Cent is not there.

Now when they need to cross the water, Marrow can form the boat, and Grace’l can form its sail. They set off for the next island. On the way, they meet Mela Merwoman, swimming in the water.  Mela tells them what she knows about the Heaven Cent. In the past it has sent people to the place they were most needed.  But she says it doesn’t currently exist. It needs to be recreated after each use.

But then Mela kidnaps Dolph and takes him to her underwater home. (Her magic allows him to breathe underwater – in her home, or when she is with him.) She wants to keep him and marry him when he becomes old enough.  She was previously married to Merwin Merman. But a dragon had killed him and stolen his firewater opal. If Mela still had the opal, she could attract another merman.

Meanwhile Marrow and Grace’l are still trapped in their boat formation.  Marrow calls for help with his hollow finger, which is a whistle. Chex the winged centaur arrives and rescues them.  (She had, towards the end of “Vale of the Vole”, discovered the magic which enables her to fly.)

Marrow and Grace’l make their way underwater to Mela’s home.  She agrees to release Dolph, as long as Dolph and Marrow go to recover the opal from the dragon.  Grace’l remains as a hostage.

Dolph and Marrow fly to Mount Etamin, where the dragon, Draco, has his cave.  Draco is absent, but they have to get past the guardian piranhas and bats.  Marrow is searching for the opal in the nest when Draco returns.  Dolph transforms into a series of different creatures, and fights Draco, but they are too well matched.  Draco asks for a truce – he wants to go to a ceremony of the winged monsters on Mount Rushmost: the wedding of Chex and Cheiron, the winged centaurs!  Dolph wants to go, and transforms himself into a dragonfly, and gets a ride on Draco’s back.

On the way they discuss how Draco had acquired the opal.  Draco already had another opal, and he and Merwin each desired the pair.  They played a game (along the lines of Rock, Paper, Scissors) such that the winner would get both.  Merwin had lost, but had taken both opals anyway.  So Draco had attacked and killed him.  But now, as he discusses it with Dolph,  Draco realises he and Merwin had been playing by different rules. He promises to return the opal to Mela.

The wedding ceremony is conducted by the Simurgh.  (The Simurgh is a huge bird who is the wisest creature in the universe.)  She announces that the offspring of this union will change the course of the history of Xanth, and she gets all the winged monsters to swear to protect that offspring.  The Simurgh notices Dolph there, and tells him mentally that he, especially, must swear this as well.

Marrow had been left to defend Draco’s nest.  But goblins, living in the caves of Mount Etamin, invade to steal Draco’s hoard of precious stones. Marrow fights them off with the help of the bats and piranhas, so the goblins don’t get many gems, but they break Marrow’s bones apart and carry them away.

Draco and Dolph arrive back.  Dolph wants to rescue Marrow.  Draco is too big to go through the cave system, but he takes Dolph to the naga, who also live in the caves.  The naga are a human/snake crossbreed race: in their natural forms they have the head of a human and the body of a snake.  They can transform into either human or snake forms.  King Nabob Naga agrees to help rescue Marrow, as long as Dolph marries his daughter Nada.  Or since Dolph is currently too young, if they become betrothed.  Dolph meets Nada; she is apparently 8 years old, close to his age.

The naga men, with Nabob, Dolph and Nada along, attack the goblins and recover Marrow’s bones.  Dolph puts Marrow back together again.  Draco rewards Dolph and Marrow by giving them both opals. Nabob insists that Dolph takes Nada with him when they leave.

Dolph, Marrow and Nada return to Mela, and give her both opals, and Grace’l is returned to them.  They continue exploring the islands down the coast, having adventures on each one.

But now we discover the truth about Nada, but she doesn’t tell the others at this stage.  She is actually 14, but her transformation ability enables her to appear a similar age to Dolph.  Nada’s older brother Naldo had gone to Humfrey to ask for help for the naga against the goblin encroachments. Humfrey’s Answer was: “Marry what Draco brings.”  Naldo thought that this must mean he would marry Princess Ivy, resulting in an alliance with the human King, for assistance in fighting the goblins.  But it was Dolph whom Draco brought – so it was Nada who had to marry him, in order to form the alliance.

Grace’l realises Nada is upset about something.  Grace’l confesses her own situation: she was exiled from the gourd realm, for messing up a bad dream.  Nada confesses her situation to Grace’l.

Finally they come to Centaur Isle.  But the centaurs of the Isle don’t welcome outsiders.  How can they search there for the Heaven Cent?

Nada uses an Eye Queue vine to become smarter. She realises they can cross into Mundania, which is essentially in the same place as Xanth, and do the searching there.  They can go through the zombie gourd (mentioned in “Vale of the Vole”) which will enable them to enter the gourd realm physically.  There must be an exit from that realm to Mundania, because night mares and storks go there.  But Dolph and Nada will have to go alone, as Marrow and Grace’l can’t exist in Mundania.  Nada will turn into a snake in Mundania, because the majority of her genetic material is that of a snake.

So Marrow leads the way through the gourd realm, and then Dolph and Nada make their way to Mundania, emerging in No Name Key, in Florida. Dolph finds a man called Turn Key – the keeper of the portal into Xanth from Mundania.  Turn Key uses a computer to translate the Mundane language to the Xanthian language, so they can understand each other.  And he takes Dolph out in a motor boat to search for the Heaven Cent off the coast of Florida.  He uses a device, which looks like a watch, to point to the direction of the Heaven Cent.  The device points back towards the mainland.  He gives Dolph the watch, and Dolph and Nada return to Xanth.

Dolph flies the group back across the mainland of Xanth, following the watch, and ends up on the west coast.  There they find a monument to Trent’s return to become King (which occurred in “A Spell for Chameleon”).  The watch points them to an island off the coast.  When they get there, Dolph reads the island’s name aloud:  “Isle of View”.  But Nada mishears him; she thinks he said “I love you”.  She confesses that she doesn’t love him, and tells her whole story. They both become upset.

The place where the watch indicates is empty.  Maybe the Heaven Cent is in the corresponding location in Mundania.  They return to the monument on the mainland where they had seen a gourd.  They meet the guardian of the monument, an argus (a really strange monster).  He tells them there is supposed to be another monument on the Isle of View, indicating the location of a dying maiden in a coffin, who has the Heaven Cent. A prince is supposed to wake her with a kiss. But that other monument has gone.

Marrow, Grace’l and Dolph enter the gourd realm.  Since Dolph has entered in spirit form, Nada stays behind to watch his body.

They enter a confusing setting within the gourd.  It is obviously a simulation of a Mundanian airport, but they do not realise that.  They steal a small plane, and fly to the place corresponding to the Isle of View, and land.  There is a tomb there, but Dolph can’t open the door.  They now realise that the reference to the “skeleton key” is to one of Grace’l’s rib bones, which plays the key of G (a grace note) when she taps it.  She does this, and the door opens.  They find the coffin inside and open it.  There is a sleeping girl inside. Dolph kisses her and she wakes. She says her name is Electra, and he must marry her, or she will die.  So he says he will.

But the Night Stallion (the ruler of the gourd realm) appears.  Grace’l must go on trial, for spoiling the dream and violating her exile.  Dolph says he will go on trial with her.

We now learn Electra’s story:

This occurs more than 800 years ago (shortly before the past part of “Castle Roogna”).  Electra’s talent is electric shocks.  The Sorceress Tapis is a creator of magic tapestries; she created the tapestry which hangs in Castle Roogna in the present day.  Tapis employs Electra to charge up the Heaven Cent, a copper coin which sends the invoker to the place they are needed. Electra wears it on a chain around her neck; the charging takes three years.  Tapis wants to use it to go to the place where she can do the most good, before she reaches the end of her life.

A Princess comes to Tapis.  She is fated to bite a poison apple and lie in an enchanted sleep for a thousand years.  She has the apple, and has set up the coffin, and she wants Tapis to make a coverlet for it.  At the end of a thousand years, she expects a prince to wake her up with a kiss.  If the prince doesn’t turn up, she will die, but the Princess is sure he will turn up.

Magician Murphy (who previously appeared in “Castle Roogna”) comes to Tapis for her support against King Roogna.  Tapis refuses, and Murphy casts his curse on her.

The Princess prepares to enter the coffin.  But Murphy’s curse operates.  Electra accidentally invokes the Heaven Cent, falls into the coffin, bites the apple and falls into an enchanted sleep.  The situation intended for the Princess has happened to her.

Back in the present: What will be the consequence of Grace’l’s trial?  And if Dolph survives, he has become betrothed to two girls: how will this be resolved?

Dolph loves Nada, but she doesn’t love him, but she doesn’t want to break it off because of the alliance.  Electra loves Dolph, but he doesn’t love her, but if he breaks it off she will die.

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