Isis Orb (2016)
A young man called Hapless is dissatisfied with life, but doesn’t want to go to Good Magician Humfrey for help. He doesn’t think he is a hero to get involved in some quest.
But then Humfrey turns up at his door and tells Hapless what he (Hapless) wants: to be able to play a musical instrument, a good girlfriend, and to make a difference to Xanth. (Hapless has the talent of conjuring any instrument, but when he tries to play them it sounds awful.)
Hapless realises that these are indeed the things he wants. Humfrey says he will get all of these by going on a quest. Hapless has an appointment at the Magician’s castle for three days time.
When Hapless objects, Humfrey says that he had prepared for Hapless’s visit and if he doesn’t show up, this will be wasted effort. Besides, five innocent people’s lives will be ruined, a mean goddess will prevail and two nice girls and one nasty girl will remain unattached. And some of those will come to Humfrey with their problems.
Hapless becomes interested in the idea of the two nice girls and the nasty girl.
Humfrey says that Hapless has to learn to think outside the box. (Thinking outside the box becomes a recurring theme in the story.) When Hapless asks him what box, Humfrey becomes exasperated. But Humfrey gives him a box, telling him that what is in it is the wrong thing for him. Then he leaves.
Hapless opens the box and finds the picture of a pretty girl. The girl speaks to him and tells him her name is Cylla Cybin. When Hapless tells her he is going to visit the Good Magician, she says she will go with him; she wants to see the Good Magician too. She (the actual girl, not the picture) will meet him at the edge of the village on the way to the enchanted path.
So Hapless grabs his knapsack, puts the box inside and sets out. He meets Cylla at the edge of the village and they walk together along the enchanted path.
Cylla says her talent is giving people hallucinations. She gives him one, which is quite a shock.
They come to a campsite, where they will spend the night. There is another man there called Eli. Cylla is a bit dismayed, as she had wanted some time alone with Hapless.
Eli’s talent varies according to the day of the week: there are both benefits and disadvantages with each day’s talent; Eli is going to see the Good Magician about this.
So the three of them travel on together. Cylla is coming to like Eli, and when they reach the Good Magician’s Castle, Cylla and Eli decide to go off together and help solve each other’s problems. And so it is true: what was in the box had been wrong for Hapless.
Hapless enters the castle. Inside he meets Wira, the Good Magician’s daughter-in-law and her three-year-old daughter, Liz. Normally it is Wira’s job to escort querents to the Good Magician, but this time Liz does.
Humfrey takes the box from Hapless, shakes it and returns it to him. Now, opening the box will give him what he needs. The first five entries will produce a picture of a Companion.
Humfrey gives him his quest: to get the Isis Orb, which can grant any wish – so it can grant Hapless’s wishes and those of his Companions. He will need to gather five Companions for the quest. Then the group will need to collect the five Totems of Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and the Void. These are needed to control the Orb. The Orb is in the possession of the Goddess Isis.
Liz escorts Hapless back to Wira and Sofia Socksorter, the Good Magician’s Designated Wife of the Month.
He discusses the quest with them. Sofia tells him Isis is an ancient goddess from Egypt in Mundania. She is the Goddess of Fertility – which is actually a euphemism for sex. She is likely to try and seduce him and make him her love-slave.
Sofia also tells him the box will generate a path to his Companions: an enchanted path that will keep him from danger. And she tells him the Good Magician had chosen him because Hapless had gumption.
Hapless stays the night in the castle and meets them again at breakfast. He asks Sofia why she is referred to as the Designated Wife.
Sofia explains that over a century or more Humfrey had married and lost five and a half wives, through death or departure. Then Demon Xanth had played a trick on him and returned them all from Hell at once. But in Xanth only one wife is permitted at a time, so they take turns being present in the castle, a month at a time. When one gets fed up with him, the next takes over.
[This arrangement is different from the agreement Humfrey had come to with Demon Xanth in “Question Quest”, that the off-duty wives must remain in Hell.
(Actually I suspect the author has forgotten what the original agreement was. So what I am describing here is my attempt to reconcile the apparent contradiction.)
It is revealed in “Ghost Writer in the Sky” that the off-duty wives are living in a shared house in Xanth (not Hell). So it seems that, some time since “Question Quest”, Demon Xanth released all of the wives from Hell, and the original agreement no longer applies. The “half wife” is MareAnne, who had been Humfrey’s girlfriend, but only married Humfrey after she was first released from Hell.]
First Companion: Feline
So Hapless leaves on his quest. He opens the box: it has a picture of a cat with blue and white stripes, and the word “Feline”.
A path appears before him. It is a one-way path; it disappears behind him as he walks along it. (It is actually the box which sets its position: Hapless can put down his pack which contains the box, and walk away, and the box will keep the path in place.)
He comes at last to a glade with an attractive young woman. She has striped blue and white hair. The path leads to her and stops. He asks if she has seen a cat and she says no.
But after his persistent questions, she transforms into a cat. She doesn’t seem very interested in him, so he explains about his quest. She transforms back into a woman. She tells him her wish is to be loved for something other than her curves.
Hapless admits that he is attracted to her, but it is mostly because of her curves. From then on Feline is constantly flirting with and kissing him, hoping that he likes her for something other than her curves, and becoming jealous if he looks at another woman. As time goes on they become quite fond of each other. The Good Magician had said that Hapless would have two good girlfriends, and possibly one bad girlfriend. Feline is the first of the good girlfriends.
Hapless tells her about his talent of conjuring instruments. (Any instrument he conjures fades away after a day or so. But he can always conjure it again. In practice he must conjure the instruments afresh each time his companions need them; evidently they abandon them as they travel.) She asks for a kit – a very small violin. He conjures it and she plays it; she is surprised at how well she can play: the instrument must be magical. Hapless conjures another one, and shows how when he plays it, it sounds awful.
Feline mentions how “music soothes the savage beast”. (That should be “breast” says Hapless.) Feline says he can use his awful playing to scare away savage beasts during the night.
Feline tells Hapless about herself. Her parents are a human woman and a tomcat who met at a love spring. But in both the human and the cat communities, people had made fun of her because of her blue and white stripes. When she came of age, the boys became interested in her because of her curves, but she knew that they weren’t interested in her as a person.
Hapless and Feline harvest blankets from a blanket bush and make them into a tent for the night.
In the night, nickelpedes attack. Hapless plays the kit violin and the nickelpedes flee. Later two big snakes approach. Hapless and Feline are not sure whether good or bad music will affect them, so they both play, and the snakes leave.
In the morning, Feline suggests that in future they should open the box before nightfall; that way they will be on an enchanted path and safe from harm overnight.
Second Companion: Zed
Hapless opens the box. There is a picture of a male centaur with black and white stripes, with the label “Zed”.
Hapless and Feline set off along the enchanted path.
Demoness Metria appears, as she often does when she is looking for something interesting. She is curious about the enchanted path, and the fact that one of the travellers is a human/cat crossbreed. They tell her about the quest. After a while she departs.
The path widens into a track, and they see a wagon labelled “Centaur Stage Coach”. A centaur invites them to get in, so they do. The centaur pulls the coach along the track.
After a while they stop. The path ahead keeps moving, switching to different destinations. Hapless figures out that it is because Zed keeps moving. When the coach centaur hears about the zebra-striped centaur, he disapproves. Generally land-based centaurs (as opposed to flying centaurs) disapprove of magic and centaur crossbreeds. Feline starts to argue, but Hapless grabs her and leads her away from the coach; they will continue on their own.
They continue on the path; the scenery keeps changing as the path keeps switching. They see Zed ahead of them and Hapless calls out to him to stop moving.
They reach Zed, who tells them he had wanted to go on a quest, to find true love, but had been unnerved by the path following him. Hapless explains that the path was just leading them to him, and invites him to join their quest.
Zed carries Hapless, and Feline in catform, to a spring with nearby pie plants. Zed explains that his parents, a male Mundane zebra and a female centaur had met at a love spring.
Feline asks Zed if he plays an instrument. He says he doesn’t, but is interested in the saxophone. Hapless conjures one, and Zed discovers he can play it beautifully. He and Feline play their instruments together. Dispirited, Hapless wanders away. But then the music goes sour and stops. They discover that Hapless has to be present for them to be able to play beautifully.
Third Companion: Nya
Evening has come. In order to generate a new safe path, they open the box again. In it is a picture of a strange creature, like a winged serpent, with a human woman’s face, arms and breasts, and a dragon’s tail. The label says “Nya”. Presumably a dragon/naga crossbreed. (Naga are human/serpent crossbreeds.)
They set up camp on the enchanted path, in a tent made from a blanket.
During the night there is a voice. They look out and see a zebra-striped female centaur, trying to entice Zed to go to her. But Hapless realises she is a demoness. Realising she has been caught out, she says she is C Duce (“seduce”), a cemoness. She continues to argue with them, hoping to provoke them into leaving the enchanted path. Now Metria appears – she is able to appear on the enchanted path because she is friendly. The two demonesses get into a fight. The questers take the opportunity to move on.
They encounter two children who ask for their help. Feline leaves the path to go to them and Hapless follows. But the children transform into goblins, and threaten to put them in the cooking pot. Feline transforms into her cat form, with claws extended. Hapless conjures a trombone, takes it apart and uses the bones to hit the goblins. The goblins flee.
But now they can’t find their way back to the enchanted path. Zed (who had remained on the path) speaks to them; they hear him but can’t see him. Zed and the path must be shrouded by illusion.
An ogre approaches. Zed reaches across and pulls them onto the path. The ogre is confused; he can’t see them anymore.
After this they practise leaving the path and coming back to it. As they get used to it they see the path as a faint light.
It is still night, so they pitch their tent again and go to sleep.
In the morning they continue on. They come to a mountain. The path leads up it, by winding around the mountain.
At the top they come to a dragon’s nest. In the nest is a naga – half serpent and half human. This is obviously Nya Naga. She is quite willing to join their quest, as she wants to discover her purpose in life. She demonstrates how she can transform to a winged fire-breathing dragon, and then transforms back to a naga. Her parents were a dragon and a naga who met at a love spring. She can only speak the human language while in naga form; while in dragon form she can only talk to dragons.
Hapless asks if she plays a musical instrument. She says she is partial to the harmonica, but does not play well. He conjures a harmonica and she discovers she can play it beautifully. Feline, Zed and Nya all play their instruments together.
Hapless tells Nya about the box and the enchanted path it generates. He gets it out of his pack and holds it out to Nya. But a gust of wind blows it out of his hand and it falls down the mountain. Nya transforms into her dragon form to go and get it. But then she changes back. Rocky Roc is coming; this could be dangerous. (With the box gone, they don’t have the enchanted path.)
Nya transforms to dragon form again to talk to the roc; they are able to communicate in a winged monster pidgin language. Rocky tells her they have one minute to vacate the nest before he drops it into the sea. (Nya transforms back and forth as necessary to talk to Rocky and to the others.) Nya tells the others she can carry away Hapless and Feline in catform, but not Zed.
Hapless conjures an organ and plays it: the music is terrible. Rocky retreats, but then comes back again. Hapless asks Nya to tell the roc they will play bad music if he misbehaves, but good music if he behaves. Feline, Zed and Nya play a rock symphony for Rocky, and he is charmed by it.
Nya asks Rocky why he had been angry. He says that the dragons had called him loathsome. Zed suggests there might have been a misunderstanding. He asks Nya to say the word “loathsome” and then “handsome” in pidgin. Nya does and they sound very similar. The dragons may have called him handsome. Nya explains to Rocky. He accepts that possible explanation and leaves.
Nya transforms to dragon and flies down and fetches the box. They spend the night in the nest.
Fourth Companion: Quin
The next day, Hapless opens the box. Inside is a picture of a dragon with a human head and bird’s wings on the forepart. The label says “Quin”. Nya says it looks like a dragon/harpy crossbreed.
Then they see the new enchanted path. It leads from the nest straight out into the air, like a bridge. They try stepping onto the path and discover it holds their weight. (Hapless, of course, has to go last, as the path ends at the box.)
They finally come to another high nest. A harpy/dragon crossbreed is waiting for them; this is obviously Quin. They introduce themselves. Zed asks Quin if he plays a musical instrument.
Quin explains that he can transform into harpy or dragon or any form in between. His normal harpy form has wings and legs, but when he transforms he can reshape the legs into arms. He favours the accordion.
Hapless conjures an accordion and Quin discovers he can play it beautifully. They all play their instruments together.
Quin tells them his wish is to become human. He has tried to shape his body to become more human, but it doesn’t work.
But then he tells them he can’t go on the quest.
His parents were a small male flying dragon and a female harpy who met a love spring. His mother took care of him, but the other harpies barely tolerated him. The same was true with the dragons. (Quin is a steamer dragon.)
The huge majority of harpies are female. This means that most female harpies have to breed with the ancestral species of the crossbreed: humans or vultures. But they prefer to breed with male harpies if they can. So they tolerate Quin because they might need him for breeding purposes.
Fortunately a male harpy, Hardly Harpy, came to the local flock, so it seemed that Quin was not needed. (He is called Hardly as he doesn’t act like a typical harpy. He is nice, whereas most female harpies are badly behaved.) But then the goblins captured Hardly and are holding him for an impossible ransom. In the meantime Quin feels obliged to stay with the flock as he may be needed.
Hapless decides they must rescue Hardly. They discuss the situation. The goblins live within the nearby mountain. There are various other monsters living in the mountain. Plus, the goblins would have set various traps. And the tunnels within the mountain are like a labyrinth. Quin has a map, but it is still pretty confusing.
Then Quin notices something the others haven’t. The faint glow of the enchanted path has an extra loop, which goes through the mountain. The path must intend them to rescue Hardly and is showing them the way.
So they all set off. They enter the tunnels of the mountain, remaining silent, so as not to alert the goblins. A group of goblins pass but don’t see them. They pass through a cave of bats, then come to a pool. There is a kraken weed in the water. The path leads across the pool. They walk across it, and because of the enchantment, the kraken can’t touch them. They pass a nest of giant spiders, but again the enchantment protects them.
They come to a cave of tigers. Feline takes her cat form, and the tigers turn away, respecting her right to pass with her party.
They finally come to a cave where there are two people: Hardly Harpy and a female goblin, his guard. Zed grabs the gobliness and puts his hand over her mouth, to stop her alerting the other goblins. Quin explains to Hardly that they are here to rescue him.
Hardly tells them that the gobliness, Glenna, is a friend; she won’t call the other goblins. Glenna tells Hardly she will miss him.
They start to leave, leaving Glenna behind. But the goblins arrive and accuse Glenna of letting the prisoner escape. They are ready to attack and kill her. The questers have to rescue her and take her with them.
Hapless conjures a tuba and plays it. The goblins fall back at the awful sound. Zed grabs Glenna and the questers hurry away. Hardly and Glenna embrace, saying they love each other. The goblins try to attack, but are stopped by the enchanted path.
The questers arrive back at the tigers’ cave. The tigers face off the goblins, who retreat. The questers reward the tigers by playing a tune with their instruments: an impromptu predatory cat medley.
They continue on, emerge from the mountain and arrive back at Quin’s nest. They spend the night there.
In the morning Hardly calls the harpies. He explains how the questers had rescued him from the goblins. He tells them that Glenna is his girlfriend. The harpies will be his harem. They must respect her right to be with him if they want him to stay with the flock. The harpies give in to this demand. Hardly and Glenna depart for his apartment within the harpy caves of the mountain.
Fifth Companion: Faro
Hapless opens the box. There is a picture of a female winged centaur, with the label “Faro”. The enchanted path appears; it goes from the nest to the mountain and then proceeds down it at a steep angle. After following it to the mountain, they try walking on the steeply angled path and discover they can do it without difficulty; it feels as if they are walking on level ground.
They follow the path down the mountain, through the forest and to the sea. The path continues over the sea, but they are still able to walk on it.
A storm approaches; it is Fracto, the worst of storm clouds. Feline makes fun of him, thinking that he can’t affect them on the enchanted path. The rain falls, but there is a tunnel over the path protecting them from it. But then Fracto whips up the sea, which makes the path undulate up and down, and the questers become seasick. Feline is forced to apologise to Fracto, and the storm abates.
They spend the night on the enchanted path on the sea.
The next day they come to an island. There is Faro, the female winged centaur. She tells them she is afraid of heights. Her wish is to overcome this. She can fly, but not very high. The other centaur children had called her “Fear O’ Heights”.
She was stranded here by her classmates, who thought this would force her to overcome her fear. But it hasn’t worked. She can’t fly low over the ocean surface because sea predators could jump up and grab her.
They introduce themselves and explain their quest. They play their instruments.
Hapless asks Faro what instrument she plays. She says she has always been partial to drums. So Hapless conjures a three-drum set. She discovers she can play it beautifully.
Hapless opens the box. The picture inside is of a fiery faun, with the label “Fire Totem”. So the roster of Companions is now complete and the next stage of the quest is to obtain the Totems.
The path has appeared; it rises into the air and heads back over the sea. But they discover it won’t support their weight. It is no longer an enchanted path, just a guide to where they should go.
But only two of the group of six can fly effectively. They break up into three pairs to brainstorm the situation: Zed and Feline (the two with stripes), Quin and Nya (the two dragons) which leaves Hapless and Faro.
Faro tells Hapless that winged centaurs can fly because they flick themselves with their tails, and this magically makes them light. She puts him on her back, flicks both him and herself and takes off. But of course she can’t fly very high. She lands again.
Hapless has an idea. Faro can be blindfolded, and he can guide her. That way she will not see how high she is, so will not be afraid. They try it and it works; they manage to get quite high. He guides her down to ground again.
So now they have three fliers. Faro can carry Hapless, and Feline in cat form. Maybe Zed can be flicked light by Faro, and carried in a harness supported on a line by one of the dragons.
Faro tells them she has friends in the village on the island. The village is called Eleven Elves, and is the home of ground-dwelling elves. (These are a different species from the better known Elm Elves.) She takes them to the village, where they meet Elmer, the village leader.
The dragons give the elf children rides. Hapless, Feline and the elves make a leather harness for Zed. Then the whole group give a concert with their instruments. And the elves hold a banquet for the visitors. Faro goes around saying goodbye to the various inhabitants of the island.
They spend the night in Faro’s stall which is in the elves’ village.
Fire Totem: Faun
The next day they set off. Zed gets into the harness, Faro flicks him light. Quin, in dragon form, takes the rope and flies up. Nya, also in dragon form, flies up with him. Hapless, and Feline in cat form, get onto Faro’s back, Hapless ties the blindfold onto Faro, and Faro takes off.
They follow the path, with Hapless giving Faro directions.
They finally reach the mainland and keep flying over the land. They come to the Region of Fire, which makes sense since they have to obtain the Fire Totem. There is a wall of fire surrounding the region, but the path guides them through where there is a momentary gap.
The path leads them to the ground, so they land. Nearby is a mound of rock which may cover the faun’s underground den. Then they see a fiery faun in the next field, setting fire to bushes with a burning torch: apparently part of his duty as the guardian of the Region of Fire. It seems they need to get the faun to lead them to the Fire Totem.
(The fire fauns, also described as fire spirits, live within the Region of Fire. Their bodies are surrounded by flames, and they are immune to fire and heat. There are both male and female fire fauns; in this way they differ from normal fauns, who are all male – except for a few rare female fauns. Nymphs are the usual female counterpart of fauns.)
Zed suggests that in such a quest as theirs, normally each companion has to collect one artifact. So they should decide who should obtain each Totem. The five Totems they need to collect seem to correspond to the five Regions of the Elements: Air, Earth, Fire, Water and the Void.
They decide as follows:
- Nya should obtain the Fire Totem, because in dragon form she is a fire breather.
- Feline should obtain the Water Totem, because her curvaceous nature corresponds to the fluid, yielding, changeable nature of water.
- Quin should obtain the Air Totem, because he can fly, and in dragon form he is a steamer, and steam is similar to air.
- Zed should obtain the Earth Totem, because he is landbound and solid.
- That leaves Faro to obtain the Void Totem. Possibly her fear of heights relates, since the Region of the Void includes a possible fall into its depths.
Hapless feels left out. How is it that all the others get to collect Totems and he doesn’t? It’s similar to how they can all play instruments and he can’t. Feline tries to calm him down, trying to persuade him that his role is as the quest leader.
Nya approaches the faun and asks him to give her the Totem. He responds with rude and crude language. She transforms into her dragon form and blasts him with her fiery breath, but it has no effect.
Then Faro suggests that Nya should play music. So Nya plays her harmonica. The music puts the faun into a trance. He walks slowly towards her and when he touches her, he falls to the ground in the form of a Totem: it has the form of a miniature replica of the faun. Nya picks it up.
Nya discovers the powers of the Totem. When she holds it near the firewall, the wall flares up, then having used up its fuel, leaves a gap for a few moments. This will enable them to leave the Region. The Totem also enhances Nya’s powers: she is able to transform into a complete human woman.
Nya is in mental communication with the faun, whose name she now knows is Fiery. As Totem he is required to serve her. He has a den below the nearby rocks. They find the entrance, and Nya, Quin, Feline and Hapless enter. The two centaurs, Zed and Faro, cannot fit into the tunnel and stay outside.
Inside the den, the questers find a female fire faun. She is Fiera, Fiery’s girlfriend. She realises that Fiery has become the Totem, which is a problem, as they had been set to dance at the big Fire Fandango that night. She had wanted to enter the dance competition, but now she doesn’t have a partner.
Feline suggests that Hapless take Fiera to the dance. He can take the Totem, which will enable him to dance and will also protect him from the fire. Feline will come too. But Hapless realises that he is supposed to play castanets as he dances, and as with any instruments, he would not be able to play them. Feline says she will play them.
So Nya tells the Totem to go with Hapless, to enable him to dance and protect him from the fire. She hands the Totem to him. He can now hear Fiery’s mental voice. Feline addresses the Totem, telling him that he needs to protect her too; she persuades him that it would be best if Hapless has his girlfriend with him instead of being alone with Fiera.
So Fiera, Hapless and Feline dress in their dance costumes and head off to another larger den where dozens of fire fauns are gathered. Hapless conjures some castanets for Feline. Fiera has her own.
Hapless allows Fiery to control his steps. Hapless and Fiera dance, and Feline plays the castanets in time to his dancing.
The time for the dance contest comes. Feline asks Hapless to give her the Totem, so she can dance with Fiera. She persuades the Totem to enable her to dance well, as this could bring Fiera the prize. The two women dance together beautifully, and they win the prize. Afterwards they return to Fiery’s den.
Earth Totem: Dragon
The next day, Hapless opens the box. There is a picture of a huge six-winged steamer dragon, with the words “Earth Totem”.
Zed, who has been assigned the job of obtaining the Totem, objects that the dragon is not a land-bound creature. But Faro points out that all of the elements exist in all of the Regions, except the Void.
They follow the path and come to the firewall. Nya holds out her Totem; the wall flares up and then flickers out. They cross into the Region of Earth. There is an active volcano in the centre.
But the path seems to go meandering off to the side instead of leading directly to the dragon.
A monstrous six-winged dragon appears and flies towards them. Zed threatens him with his bow and arrow and the dragon flies away.
But Zed wonders how he can catch the dragon; he is huge and he flies. Is Zed the wrong companion for this?
They discuss this: they decide that it is necessary to “herd” the dragon in a particular direction, and Zed will be waiting to entrance him with his music. The companions should spread out around the Region, playing their music. The dragon, since he is the guardian, will realise they are trying to capture him and that music will entrance him.
They follow the path and find that the path loops in a number of places; each of these is a location for a member of the team to take up a station. Then when Zed is in place he will play a low inaudible note on his saxophone, which they will feel as a vibration in the ground. At that point they should play their instruments and advance in Zed’s direction, herding the dragon.
But then they realise that they can’t play entrancing music when Hapless is too far away. They will have to bluff by playing a single note repeatedly, as if they are about to play the entrancing music.
The plan works. The dragon, trying to avoid the team members playing their music, heads in Zed’s direction. Hapless comes close enough, so that Zed’s music will entrance the dragon. Then Zed starts playing, and the dragon, stunned, falls to the ground. Zed touches him and he turns into the Totem.
Zed discovers he has the power to start an avalanche or an earthquake, or cause a volcano to appear.
Air Totem: Griffin
The questers stay the night in the Region of Earth. In the morning, Hapless opens the box. Inside is a picture of a horrendous six-headed griffin, with the label “Air Totem”.
The path leads them to the south, and they cross the boundary into the Region of Air. In the centre of the Region is a high mountain, and the griffin’s nest is at the top.
The griffin sees them and swoops down; he is huge, the size of a centaur. The questers take cover. The griffin flies away; he was only investigating.
The Region reacts to the griffin’s mood; a big storm arises with strong winds. The questers search for shelter; they find what initially appears to be a cave within the mountain, but turns out to be a wind tunnel; it is open each end. The centaurs block each end, so the others can shelter and discuss the situation. The storm doesn’t seem to be dying down.
Hapless comes up with a solution: Quin will fly to the griffin’s nest and play his accordion. The griffin will fly away, but Quin will keep following. Eventually the griffin will give up and return to the nest. In the meantime, Hapless will climb the mountain, so he will be at the griffin’s nest when the griffin returns. So Quin can return there, and because of Hapless’s presence, Quin’s music will have its entrancing effect. Nya will help Hapless climb the mountain; in her naga form, she is good at climbing.
They exit the wind tunnel. Quin and Nya transform to dragons and take off into the wind; Nya is helping Quin. Zed and Faro walk either side of Hapless and Feline, to protect them from the wind, and escort them to the base of the mountain. Nya returns and transforms back into her naga form to help Hapless climb.
So Hapless and Nya proceed up the mountain, following the path which is leading them, looping round the mountain in a spiral. It is a difficult climb. A giant caterpillar, the size of a bus, passes along the track, and they have to get out of the way. Hapless and Nya have to prevent each other falling. Further along, the ground is so icy, Hapless keeps slipping, but Nya turns dragon and melts the ice with her fire breath, enhanced by the Fire Totem.
But before they can reach the griffin’s nest, the griffin returns. He sees them, and swoops down to attack them. Nya, in dragon form, flies to intercept him. But the griffin is much bigger than her. But then Quin arrives; he is in an intermediate form between harpy and dragon, flying and playing the accordion. The griffin goes into a trance. Quin touches him, and he turns into the Totem.
With the Air Totem, Quin is able to make the wind storm cease. Quin and Nya help Hapless back down the mountain. Hapless falls asleep, exhausted.
The next day, the group decide not to open the box yet, but to travel in Normal Xanth (outside the Regions) for a while. They will exit from the southern boundary of the Air Region, then travel west around the Region, then travel north past the Regions of Earth and Fire till they come the Region of Water.
After they exit the Region of Air, they hear a child crying. Feline, Faro and Hapless go to investigate, while Zed, Quin and Nya continue to explore their route.
Feline, Faro and Hapless find a 5-year-old girl. Her name is Myst, and she is lost. She had wandered away from her mother, Merge. (Myst and Merge are from “Five Portraits”.) Myst had had a picture in her mind of a certain musical instrument and had gone looking for it. She describes it, and Hapless recognises it as a toy xylophone. He conjures it for her, and as usual, she discovers she can play it beautifully.
Feline transforms to cat form, so she can follow Myst’s scent back to her mother. Faro goes with her.
Myst explains to Hapless that Merge had adopted her. It was a single parent adoption; Myst has no father. Merge would have liked to marry, but there was no suitable man available. Myst, grateful for the xylophone, hugs and kisses Hapless.
Feline and Faro return with Merge. (Hapless is embarrassed: here he is holding this woman’s daughter.)
Then Hapless’s and Merge’s glances meet. A glowing line connects them, and a red ribbon appears, to tie them both together. It is a Love Knot; they are destined to be together.
But Hapless already has a girlfriend, Feline. However Feline and Merge have become friends; they can’t feel resentful of one another.
They explain to Merge how Hapless is destined to have two good girlfriends and possibly one bad one.
Hapless and Merge kiss; it is a wonderful experience.
Faro tells Merge about their quest. Merge tells her own story. She was originally five sisters. She demonstrates by splitting into five women and then merging again. A group of questers, looking for an antidote to the anti-pun virus, had come to the sisters and enabled them to merge. She has an urn which contains a virtually infinite supply of the antidote elixir. (This occurred in “Board Stiff”.) Now the group is on a mission to eradicate the anti-pun virus. Members of the group had adopted five children from an alternate universe, set 50 years in the future (in “Five Portraits”). This is how she came to adopt Myst.
Myst demonstrates her talent: she can transform into mist.
Hapless can’t decide between the two women: he loves them both. And Merge doesn’t want to leave him. And Myst wants him as a father because she is pleased with the xylophone he conjured. Feline suggests that Merge comes with them until they reach the Region of Water.
Feline asks Merge what musical instrument she would like. Merge suggests an adult version of the xylophone. So Hapless conjures a marimba on a stand. Merge discovers she can play it beautifully.
Astrid, another member of Merge’s group, arrives, looking for her. She is a basilisk in human form, and wears dark glasses to protect people from her death stare. She has with her her adopted 11-year-old son, Firenze. Merge explains the situation to her.
Zed, Nya and Quin return. They had been worried that the others had not caught up with them, and had smelled a hostile dragon in the area.
The dragon appears, swooping towards them. But Astrid removes her glasses and gives it a glancing glance. The dragon is stunned and crashes and then leaves.
Before she had got lost, Myst had detected an area with the virus, while in her mist form. They now proceed to that area. It is a large area; Merge must split into the five sisters to eradicate the virus. The sisters all have urns: they give additional urns to the others, and they all proceed to pour the elixir on the virus.
Afterwards the sisters merge back into Merge. Astrid and Firenze leave to return to their group. Merge continues with Hapless’s group as they continue on their way to the Region of Water.
They spend the night just outside the Region.
Water Totem: Gorgon
In the morning Hapless opens the box. Inside is a picture of lovely mermaid, with little snakes for hair. It is a gorgon. The label says “Water Totem”.
The questers enter the Region, while Merge and Myst stay outside. Merge and Myst would check for them in that location each day at noon.
Inside the Region they find themselves on the shore of a lake. They follow the path to a village, and to a building labelled “Seep Inn”. A woman comes to the door and asks if they want lodgings. She is wearing a kerchief and dark glasses. Her name is Colorado (Color-ado): she changes colours with the temperature. They tell her they are looking for the gorgon.
(There is another gorgon in Xanth, known simply as “the Gorgon”, who married the Good Magician. She keeps her face covered to avoid turning people to stone.)
Colorado warns them about the gorgon, whose name is Carmen. Carmen is not friendly with women, but sometimes takes a boyfriend. Her gaze does not turn people to stone, but to water: she is a water gorgon. Many of the villagers wear dark glasses to protect themselves from her. When she looks at a person in the eyes, they turn into water, collapse into a puddle and flow away. When she has a boyfriend, she wears dark glasses to avoid turning him to water, but eventually she gets tired of him, and that’s the end of him. But men find her fascinating and difficult to resist.
The questers move on, continuing to follow the path along the lake shore.
They meet a young man; he is bright blue: a bird had dropped an ice bomb on him, and he is freezing cold. They ask him if he is like Colorado at the Inn, and changes colour with temperature. . He says he is Colorado; the woman must have been impersonating him. Nya uses her Fire Totem to warm him up. Then he races away to see what is happening at the Inn.
They come to a fisherman’s shack. Hapless and Feline go to make enquiries. A woman comes to the door; she is wearing dark glasses and a kerchief. They tell her they are looking for the gorgon.
They talk for a while. The woman seems interested in Hapless, and he is becoming fascinated with her. Then he notices the magic path leads to her feet. This is Carmen, the gorgon! And it seems she wants Hapless as her boyfriend. He quickly urges Feline to leave.
Carmen, furious with them, causes a huge wave to form in the lake (this is one of her powers as the guardian of the Region). Zed and Faro come to rescue them. Zed, with Feline on his back, races away. Faro with Hapless on her back, flies into the air, then closes her eyes, while Hapless guides her to safety. They join the others. They realise the woman at the Inn had been the gorgon. And now she knows about their plans.
They discuss how they can capture her. She is interested in Hapless as a boyfriend. Maybe she is the predicted bad girlfriend. Hapless and Feline should go to a place where Carmen can overhear them. Feline should pretend to be seducing him. Carmen would become so jealous she would forget to be careful. At that point, Feline should play her kit violin, entrancing Carmen, and then convert her to the Totem.
They go to a campsite for the night. In the meantime, Nya sets off to investigate surreptitiously. She returns to tell them of a secluded beach where Carmen entertains her male friends. That’s where they should stage their performance the next morning; Carmen would be in the nearby pool.
They go to sleep in the campsite.
During the night Hapless wakes up to an eerie sound. He gets up and heads out to the lake. He sees a mermaid in the shallow waters of the lake. Then he sees she has snakes as hair; he realises this is the gorgon! This is her natural form. The eerie sound had been her siren’s call. She invites him to come to her, and he does. She is not wearing her dark glasses; she explains that the moonlight is too weak for her power to work. She can transform her tail to legs and vice versa, but each change takes an hour to complete.
She kisses him, and then supports him as she swims through the water to an islet. She tells him she wants to be his girlfriend. He is tempted. But he insists that he must continue with the quest. She says she will give him a day or three to reconsider. She brings him back to shore.
The next day Hapless and Feline set about their plan. They go to the secluded beach. Feline commences her seduction. Furious, Carmen emerges from the pool to stop this. (Her tail has transformed back into legs.) Hapless conjures Feline’s violin and she plays it. Carmen becomes mesmerised, and Feline touches her, transforming her to the Water Totem: it has the shape of Carmen’s mermaid form.
They return to camp. Feline realises she has the powers to make waves and to turn people to water. And she can bring Carmen back to full life, except that Carmen would remain subservient to her as long as Feline has the Totem.
Void Totem: Horn
Hapless opens the box. Inside is a picture of a floating megaphone, or Horn, labelled “Void Totem”.
People who enter the Void do not return. Hopefully when Hapless’s group obtain the Totem, this will enable them to exit the Region. But they have no choice if they are to continue the quest.
They follow the path north to the boundary between the Region of Water and the Void, and step through.
The ground slopes downward, until eventually there is a steep drop. There is a jumbuck there, hanging onto a brier patch to avoid falling in. The Horn appears and sucks the jumbuck into itself. Apparently the Horn’s role is to clear away objects which are resisting the fall into the centre. The picture had shown the Horn with the letter “O” on its side, but the Horn had had “A” (Avoid) before it captured the jumbuck and “D” (Devoid) afterwards.
Ovoid means egg-shaped. Hapless suggests they can tame the Horn with chicken music. Faro, whose turn it is to obtain the Totem, plays her drums and makes it sound like a flock of chickens pecking.
But how can they attract the Horn to them? Hapless suggests they put on a play: one with a boy who has two good girlfriends and one bad girlfriend.
Feline says that Carmen has some information. She is reluctant to bring Carmen back, as Carmen wants to seduce Hapless, but it seems she has no choice.
Carmen appears in mermaid form; they set her on a rock; she will take an hour to transform her tail to legs. As guardian of a Region, she knows the nature of all the Regions.
She tells them that physical objects entering the centre of the Void are in stasis, but information is lost. So when the Horn entered the Void, it lost its previous history. They can make up a history for it, which it might accept as its own, and encourage it to support their quest.
They develop the idea of the play that Hapless had suggested. The boy would be a prince called Voila. (Starting with “VOI” would help the Void Horn to identify with it.) Hapless would play this part. Voila is the heir to the Kingdom of Chicken Little. He must choose between his two good girlfriends who to marry. Princess Feline is the first good girlfriend. Princess Carmen is the bad girlfriend.
But they need a second good girlfriend, who should be human as the other characters are. Without thinking, Hapless says the name “Metria”, and as usually happens when her name is mentioned, the demoness appears. She is dismayed to discover she is in the Void, and can’t leave. When they tell her the situation, she insists she will play the bad girlfriend. So Carmen will play the second good girlfriend.
They call the Horn. It arrives: it is now displaying the letter “O”. They tell it they have a story to present.
The play begins.
Prince Voila must choose between his two good girlfriends, Princess Feline and Princess Carmen. But then a bad girl, Princess Metria, enters the picture. She sends Voila a note inviting him to her secret castle that night. That day Voila meets Feline for lunch and then Carmen for a swimming date in the afternoon. But at night he goes to Metria’s castle.
But Feline and Carmen turn up there too. They challenge Metria to a seduction competition. The winner will be the one who can freak Voila out.
And Carmen is the winner.
But Metria curses Voila and sends him to the Void, where he becomes the Horn.
Now Carmen appeals to the Horn. She invites it to accept the role of Prince Voila and come to be with her. To do this it must become the Totem, and enable them to complete the quest, but afterwards, it can come to be with her in the Region of Water.
The Horn nods in agreement. Faro plays the drums; the Horn drifts toward her, and when it touches her, transforms into the Totem. With the Totem, they are all able to leave the Void and return to the Region of Water. Metria leaves them.
They leave the Region of Water, return to Xanth proper and set up camp.
Now Feline suggests they locate Merge and Myst. So Hapless and Feline in cat form get on Faro’s back and she takes off. She closes her eyes as Hapless guides her. He locates Merge and Myst on the ground and guides Faro down. There are hugs all round.
They all walk back to where the other questers are camped.
Zed suggests that they need to practise the powers they have received from the Totems, in preparation for obtaining the Orb.
Merge tells them she had met the dog Rachel, who had discovered a problem that the village of West Tern had. (Rachel had arrived in Xanth from Mundania in “Luck of the Draw”, and had magically received the ability to talk, and had met her partner Woofer. She had then returned to Mundania to continue her career as Service Dog. She is now back in Xanth permanently. Woofer had also originally come from Mundania, and appears in a few previous stories.)
The villagers of West Tern mine the nearby comic strip for useful puns. (A comic strip is a strip of land with various obnoxious puns; entering it can be a rather nasty experience.) But now a whole lot of monsters want to take over that business and are threatening to invade and wipe out the village. The questers will need to ask Rachel about the location of the village; she and Woofer had been back near where the questers had met Merge and Myst.
Faro, with Hapless and Myst on her back, flies back to that location. Myst transforms to mist, which enables her to locate the two dogs, and Faro flies to them. Rachel tells Myst they will meet them at the camp the next day.
The next day the two dogs turn up and lead them to the village. It is surrounded by monsters. The questers come to the goblin checkpoint. The monsters are happy to let them through: it will provide them with more victims.
But since the villagers are afraid of monsters, and some of their group may appear to be monsters, Hapless and Feline enter the village first, to explain about their group. Then the others enter one by one. They play their musical instruments, which convinces the villagers that they are friendly.
Then the monsters attack:
- Flying dragons. Quin, with his Air Totem, blows the dragons away. The dragons attack again, crawling along the ground, but Quin keeps them at bay with his wind.
- A mass of nickelpedes. Feline, with her Water Totem, produces a flood of water which washes them away and drowns them.
- A huge snake. Nya, with her Fire Totem, produces a rocket-blast of fire, but when the snake persists, she creates a stellar fireball, which burns the snake to ashes.
- Goblins of the Garbage Goblins tribe. Zed, with his Earth Totem, makes the ground shake, but when the goblins keep coming, he produces a volcano which buries them in lava.
- Rabid wolves. Faro lifts her Void Totem, which expands into the full-size Horn and sucks in the wolves.
The monsters are all defeated. The villagers invite the questers to a feast to celebrate.
Afterwards the questers gather for a meeting. Zed points out that they have obtained great powers from their Totems. Power has the capacity to corrupt. They decide they must return the Totems when the quest is over. But the Goddess Isis may counter their powers on a different basis, such as illusion. They need to practise encountering the unexpected. They could do this by assisting the villagers as they mine the comic strip.
So the next day they go with the villagers to the comic strip. The villagers normally spot a useful pun and reach in and grab it. But the questers will actually enter the comic strip.
They all join hands and step in. Everything is chaos. Hapless sees a tree with dolls, each with a single eye. He figures out the pun: Eye Doll a Tree (Idolatry). He lets go of his companions’ hands to get a doll for the villagers, and immediately gets lost in the chaos. But he remembers hearing the centaurs discussing Quantum Physics, and he uses one of their ideas to freeze the scene in a snapshot. This enables him to get the doll and return to the others. They all step out of the comic strip. He tells them his snapshot technique, and they all practise this.
The next day, they say goodbye to the villagers and Hapless opens the box. There is a picture of an attractive woman, wearing a halter and shorts, sitting on a wooden throne. (Maybe this is what Isis wears when she is not making a formal presentation.) The label says “Isis Orb”.
The path leads into the comic strip. Feline invites Merge and Myst to come with them. Since Carmen wasn’t Hapless’s bad girlfriend, it may be that Isis is. Both Feline and Merge should be present to protect him from temptation.
They follow the path into the comic strip. The chaos of the comic strip is walled off from them by the boundaries of the path. The path leads along the comic strip.
They come to a magnificent castle. They use their snapshot technique on the castle and discover that it is illusion: it is just a crude wooden structure with a tin roof. They enter.
They come to a magnificent throne, where the Goddess Isis is sitting, wearing a beautiful dress. But their snapshot technique shows them she is sitting on a wooden throne wearing a halter and shorts, just as in the picture.
In response to her query, Hapless explains that they are on a quest to obtain the Orb, which will grant all of them their wishes.
Isis tells them the Orb does not currently exist; she can bring it into existence, but she does not want to do so.
She tells them her life history. She was born in Egypt 8,000 years ago. She goes on to tell about her life as described in ancient Egyptian mythology. But this resulted in disappointment and betrayal. She resolved that she would leave behind the role of faithful suffering wife and mother and focus on her selfish desires. She would look for a new realm to rule. She searched for centuries, but none of the mythologies suited her. Until she learnt about Xanth.
She applied to Demons Earth and Xanth to be allowed to move to Xanth. They agreed as long as she performed a significant service for them.
Long ago, Demons Earth and Xanth had had a Wager, and Demon Xanth had lost. Demon Earth’s prize was a chunk of Xanth’s magic, which he stored in the deepest core of Xanth. But Demon Earth needed someone to guard it, and the Goddess Isis, from Demon Earth’s own realm, fit that requirement.
But the Demons feared Isis’s ambition for power, so they laid constraints on her:
- She was confined to the comic strip.
- She could employ illusion for her personal use, but could not make illusions real, as she had been able to back in Egypt.
- She could not touch the cache of magic directly, only via the Orb.
- She could not use the Orb herself; a third party had to do this.
- The third party could only control the Orb via the combined powers of the Totems.
The Orb is like the Totems: it can only come into existence by taming the guardian, namely Isis. But it would not be as easily done as for the guardians of the Regions. Isis would oppose their efforts.
But Isis is willing to make a deal. She will give them their wishes if Hapless uses the Orb to grant her wish: to be able to rule Xanth. And to do this she wants to marry Hapless.
Hapless says no. Isis says there must be a contest: one of the three women, Isis, Feline and Merge, will win Hapless. Isis asks for one hour alone with Hapless to persuade him; if he wins, they will all have their wishes granted, and she will not have hers; if she wins, she will grant all their wishes, under her own conditions, and Hapless must marry her.
The companions agree. (Feline and Merge realise that setting such a time limit on Isis’s seduction would prevent her continuing her seduction indefinitely.)
Isis takes Hapless through a series of illusory romantic scenes. He is tempted, but in the end he feels he cannot betray the quest, or Feline and Merge. She tells him she could make him King of Xanth, and she would be the power behind the throne. But he doesn’t want that.
The hour comes to an end. The illusions dissipate; they are back in the throne room. He realises that his companions had heard the whole of their conversation.
But Isis insists that no time limit was set in the agreement. She will be prepared to fulfil her part in a century or two.
Hapless conjures the musical instruments and hands them to his companions. They start playing. Isis, alarmed, tries to escape, but Hapless touches her, and she is transformed into the Orb: a large glowing sphere, sitting on his hand. Isis can be seen inside the sphere, struggling to get out.
Hapless is able to communicate with her mentally. She tells him she is now subservient to him, and must do as he asks. She is also obliged to warn him of things that can go wrong. She switches to “speakerphone” so they all can hear. She tells them that wording their wishes badly could have bad consequences. They should tell the wishes to her informally, and she will rephrase them to make them safe.
There are other dangers associated with the Orb. The power associated with it tends to corrupt the user. It also tends to attract creatures to it, so it is best to keep it hidden.
Hapless, thinking she is stalling, tosses it into the air. A bird swoops down from nowhere, swallows it and flies off. Faro flies after it. Soon she returns with the Orb, having forced the bird to “cough it up”. She gives it back to Hapless.
The companions wonder if they still need the Orb.
- Feline had got her wish. In his conversation with Isis, Hapless had said he loved Feline for more than her curves.
- Faro had flown after the bird, showing that she no longer has fear of heights. However this may be because she possesses the Void Totem.
- Hapless’s instrument is himself. He enables the others to play their instruments. He is a musical conductor.
- Zed has found his true love: Faro.
- Quin had wanted to become human. But he has the mental and social abilities of a human, and he believes this suffices.
- Nya had wanted to find a purpose. Zed suggests she could be an envoy between the dragons and the naga. Nya agrees, saying that in the meantime she had found a temporary purpose, supporting the quest.
But Hapless is unsure. Faro might get her fear of heights back when she gives up her Totem. And Quin may still want a physical human form. He asks Isis and she agrees that this is so. The Orb can grant both of these wishes.
But she gives Hapless a warning. Every wish he makes via the Orb will make him more hungry for power, which is addictive and will corrupt him. Eventually he will not want to give the Orb up.
Hapless asks Myst for advice. She suggests he should give Faro and Quin their wishes, then give up the Orb, then marry Merge.
Feline and Merge come to an agreement about their relationships with Hapless.
They all leave the palace. They are in a pleasant illusory meadow (obviously an extension of the palace’s illusion).
Faro confirms that she still has fear of heights by giving her Totem to Hapless and then flying.
Isis gives Hapless instructions on how to use the Orb to make a wish. They must all orient their Totems on the Orb. Then the person with the wish must touch the Orb and state the wish. Isis will intercept it and rephrase it. But whoever makes the wish, the temptation for power will affect Hapless.
Hapless says he wanted to make sure there was no shadow of a doubt. But this statement is interpreted as a wish by the Orb. Isis hadn’t realised, and hadn’t intercepted it. She doesn’t know the effect of that wish: it is something to do with shadows.
Now Faro touches the Orb and makes her wish to have no fear of heights. Isis processes it. Faro gives her Totem to Hapless again and takes off; she discovers the fear is gone.
Now Quin makes his wish: to be able to take human form in addition to his current forms. Isis processes the wish. Quin takes human form; his wish has taken effect.
Then they all discover that their shadows have separated from the bodies. And even worse, as the day goes on their bodies get taller, instead of their shadows getting longer. Hapless must use another wish to restore the situation. He makes the wish, Isis processes it, and the situation is restored.
Hapless is feeling the effects of the temptation of power; he is reluctant to give up the Orb. Isis points out the benefits of retaining the Orb. But realising the consequences to his chosen partner, he decides to give it up.
As advised by Isis, he says the words, “Orb be free.” The Orb disappears and Isis reappears in her normal form. The others release their Totems in a similar way. The guardians of the Regions depart. Carmen is accompanied by Prince Voila, the new form of the Void Horn.
Hapless says farewell to Isis, and he and his companions depart from the comic strip.
They meet Rachel and Woofer. Rachel tells Hapless that the three princesses, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, are organising a travelling music ensemble. He and his group can join them. Hapless opens the box again and finds a conductor’s wand.
They meet the princesses at Caprice Castle – a castle which travels around. There are other people there, who will also join the ensemble. Hapless conducts and they all play their instruments. Hapless’s talent makes it all sound very beautiful.