Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Two to the Fifth

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Two to the Fifth (2008)
Cyrus Cyborg is the son of Roland Robot and Hannah Barbarian. (Hannah and Roland appear in “Pet Peeve”.)  Cyrus was delivered to his parents as a kit; they had to assemble him, which they managed to do over the course of the following year.  His body is flesh, but his bones are iron.  He was assembled as an adult; it is now 2 years since his delivery, and he has an apparent age of 20.  He has the knowledge of an adult, with a data bank for a brain, but not much experience.

Cyrus has built a robot donkey, called Don, using parts from the robots destroyed in “Pet Peeve”.  The donkey talks, which is not what Cyrus expected, but somehow he had installed a voice unit for talking rather than braying.

Now Cyrus is riding Don to Good Magician Humfrey’s Castle.  They meet a 13-year-old girl called Piper Nymph; she is the daughter of Hiatus Human and Desiree Dryad. (Hiatus and Desiree’s story is in “Geis of the Gargoyle”.)  With her is her friend Dusty Dust Devil; he can take the form of a whirlwind, or a little horned devil.  Piper says she would like to be an actress.  After some conversation, Piper and Dusty depart.

Further along they meet a girl called Xina.  She has been to the Good Magician, and was told to come here to join a play ensemble as an actress.  But there is nothing here.  She admires Don.  Cyrus tells her he will try to find out about the play ensemble. He leaves Don with her and continues to the Good Magician’s Castle.

As usual, Cyrus must undergo Challenges in order to enter the Castle.  In the process he meets the Sand Witch (a witch who is good at making sandwiches), a tough-looking man called Tuff Stuff, who conjures volcanic rocks and builds things with them, a nymph called Acro, and a female dust devil called Dusti – she is Dusty’s sister.

Entering the Castle, he meets Wira, the Good Magician’s daughter-in-law.  She takes him to meet Sofia Socksorter, the Good Magician’s current Designated Wife, so she can give him the background for his Service (in payment for his Answer).  He tells Sofia and Wira that his Question will be whether there is a suitable woman for him.

Sofia tells him there is an unpleasant roc bird called Ragna Roc, with powerful magic, who wants to become the ruler of Xanth.  He turns anyone who opposes him into an illusion.  As Cyrus’s Service, he must arrange to be summoned by Ragna Roc to his castle.  Cyrus must take the three Sorceress Princesses, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm with him, whose mission it will be to defeat Ragna Roc.  (The princesses are currently 12 years old.)

Wira takes Cyrus in to see Magician Humfrey.  In his confusion, Cyrus asks a different Question from what he had intended: “I need to know my true desire”.  Humfrey answers that Cyrus’s desire is to become a playwright and lead a troupe of actors.  Cyrus realises that this is true.

Wira takes him back to Sofia so she can explain his Service to him.  Sofia tells him that he must write interesting plays, so that Ragna will hear about them and invite the troupe to his castle.  The three princesses will be part of the troupe, but in disguise.  Wira tells Cyrus that Humfrey had provided a guideline: “Two to the Fifth”.  This is cryptic.  Maybe the “Two” means that Cyrus will have a woman as a partner, but what could “the Fifth” mean?

They provide Cyrus with a room where he can write his plays, but his mind goes blank and he falls asleep.  Lunchtime comes and Cyrus goes to the dining room.  He meets all the people he had met during the Challenges; they are all participating in the Challenges as part of their Services to the Good Magician.  He helps Acro Nymph discover her talent – she can perform magic using acronyms; this discovery releases her from her Service.

Cyrus tells Wira he has Writer’s Block.  She says he needs to go and get help from the Curse Fiends.  (The Curse Fiends are a community of humans who all have the same talent of casting magical curses.)  They are experts in putting on plays.  The three women – the Witch, Acro and Dusti – want to go with him as actresses.  Acro is free to go, and Humfrey allows the other two to go as part of their Services, as they will be included in Cyrus’s mission.

Outside the castle they meet Xina and Don.  Xina joins them as another actress.

When they stay at campsites along the way, the women compete to share a bed with Cyrus.  Ultimately nothing comes of it, but Cyrus finds it a frustrating experience.

They finally reach Lake Ogre-Chobee where the Curse Fiends are located.  Cyrus meets Curtis Curse-Fiend.  Curtis takes on the role of producer of the troupe, organising everything for them.  He tells Cyrus that he must find the correct kind of Writer’s Block to help him in his play writing.

Following Curtis’s instructions, Cyrus takes a root and carves it into a block.  Then he goes to a hypnogourd and enters the dream realm.  He finds himself near a blockhouse.  He enters and amongst the many blocks, he finds the perfect one, which he discovers is a statuette of a woman.  The woman speaks to him and tells him she is Melete, the Muse of Meditation.  She will inspire him in his playwriting.

He exits from the gourd and discovers that his carved block has become the upper half of the statuette of the Muse.  She can still speak to him.  But no one else can hear her, and everyone else just sees the block as an ordinary block.  In the meantime the troupe has set up camp, with a separate tent in the middle for Cyrus.

With Melete’s guidance, Cyrus plans a play called “The Curse”. The play requires a lead female character with some kind of physical deformity.

Cyrus sets out from the camp, riding Don, to find a suitable actress for that role.  From now on he carries the Writer’s Block in his pocket – it magically fits – so Melete is with him giving him guidance wherever he goes.  He eventually finds a woman called Crabapple, who has crab pincers in place of hands, and invites her to join the troupe.

A 12 year-old-girl arrives at Cyrus’s tent.  This is Princess Rhythm.  Her sisters will be joining her later.  They are all general purpose Sorceresses – able to perform practically any magic.  Rhythm is able to see and hear Melete, as well as reading other people’s thoughts.  She seems to be impatient to become an adult woman.

She joins the troupe, but uses the name Rhyme, to keep her identity secret, and she conceals the fact that she is a Sorceress.  Cyrus is attracted to her, but Melete warns him that the girl is underage.

The business of the company proceeds, with script writing and rehearsals.  The script for “The Curse” requires that the leading man sees auras around the female characters, showing their personalities.  Rhythm uses her magic to give the actresses actual physical auras.  As time goes on various other people join the troupe.

Melete reminds Cyrus of the “Two to the Fifth” guideline.  Cyrus ought to marry.  He looks around the camp at the various women.  But none are suitable.  He encounters Rhythm as he continues beyond the camp.  He realises at this point that he has left the Writer’s Block behind.

At that point Piper Nymph arrives, whom Cyrus had met on the way to the Good Magician’s Castle.  She is willing to join the troupe.  Rhythm produces a Decade spell; this is in the form of a little ball; when a person bites into it increases that person’s age by 10 years.  The spell lasts for an hour.  Piper bites it and is transformed into a 23 year old woman.  She continues on to the camp.

Rhythm confesses that she loves Cyrus, but Cyrus resists her because she is underage.

She tells him of her involvement in Mundane Daylight Saving Time. Every summer, Mundania loses 1 hour.  [The text is a bit confusing, but the 1 hour would have to be multiplied by the affected people to give the thousands of hours mentioned in the text.]  All the lost hours are stored in the village of Century, stacked around a Century plant.  In autumn the lost hours are returned.  Those villagers who handle the hours have their age increased by an hour for each hour they handle, so they get much older, but are then restored in autumn.

This particular year there was a crisis with villagers becoming impossibly old, and the Sorceress Princesses were called in to fix the situation, while youth elixir was being provided to the villagers.  Melody went to the village for 6 days and aged 3 years to 15.  Then Harmony went for 8 days and aged 4 years to 16.  Then Rhythm went for 10 days and aged 5 years to 17.

So, although her body reverted to that of a 12-year-old when she returned home, she has experienced being 17, and thinks of herself as that age.

Rhythm invokes another Decade spell and becomes a 22-year-old woman.  She jumps into a love spring, taking Cyrus with her.  The magic affect of the love spring combines with the love they already feel for each other, and they make love.

But now Rhythm realises the consequences of what they have done.  She will shortly revert to being 12 years old. Their relationship can’t continue; it is forbidden.

While they are waiting for the spell to dissipate, Stymy Stork arrives with a bundle.  (Stymy appeared in the book “Stork Naked”, at the end of which he became Head Stork.  He is making the delivery personally because Rhythm is a princess.)  The bundle is a baby girl in a basket, with a label indicating her name is Kadence.  This is unusual: usually the storks take 9 months to deliver a baby after they receive the signal.

But they realise something has gone wrong with the Decade spell.  Both Rhythm and the baby continue to age at an accelerated rate.  Rhythm cancels the spell; she returns to age 12, but Kadence is now 6 years old, and is walking and talking.  But Rhythm can’t bear to abolish her.

They explain to Kadence that she must keep their secret.  Kadence must pretend to be Rhythm’s younger sister.

As soon as Cyrus reenters his tent, Melete knows what has happened.  But now Cyrus and Rhythm realise they can’t bear to be apart. Kadence points out that Rhythm can come to Cyrus’s tent each evening and invoke the Decade spell.  So that is what she does.

Dusty Dust Devil (Dusti’s brother) joins the troupe.  A man called Guise joins the troupe and becomes the leading man for “The Curse”.  He has a talent of making clothing which makes the wearer appear to be the character they are emulating.  The Witch flies back to the Good Magician’s Castle on her broom, and fetches Tuff, and he uses his talent to build stages and seats.

Kadence discovers her talent – to make things have cadence.  For example, by concentrating, she can make ants march in regular columns.  Maybe this will turn out to be a more powerful talent.  When the troupe needs a prompter for the play, she turns out to be perfect for the job.

The troupe is getting bored with the food that the Sand Witch is providing.  Rhythm magically calls in her sisters, Melody and Harmony, who arrive instantly.  She explains to them what had happened between her and Cyrus, and they meet Kadence.  They agree to keep the secret. Then the three sisters arrange that a man called Jim would arrive at the camp, who can magically produce any kind of food, in any amount.  Melody and Harmony depart.

The troupe performs “The Curse” in Crabapple’s home village, and it is a success.

One day when Cyrus and Rhythm are together in the tent, a paper appears.  It is a notice of a violation of the Adult Conspiracy, which tells the recipient to report to the Stork Works within 48 hours.  A pastel-coloured line leads the way.  Rhythm insists on going with Cyrus, and Kadence comes too.

So they set off.  There are a number of attempts on Kadence’s life along the way; they wonder who could be responsible.  And Cyrus discovers he has left Melete at one of their stops on the way.  They will have to get her on the way back.

They are interviewed at the Stork Works by Stymy Stork, who feels partly responsible for their situation.  But there has been a misunderstanding: the violation notice had been served on Rhythm, not Cyrus.  At the time they summoned the stork, Rhythm had been 22 and Cyrus had been 2.

They explain the situation.  Stymy corrects the records to show that Cyrus was delivered as an adult, as for a robot, and that Kadence was delivered at age 6.

But then Stymy reprimands Rhythm.  She is at first defiant, but then ashamed as she realises the trouble she has caused, including the fact that Cyrus and Kadence won’t be able to live a proper family life.  Stymy tells her she must be willing to give them up.

But Stymy lets them continue as they are.  The troupe can substitute for a family support environment.  And Magician Humfrey has informed him that they are on a critical mission.

On the way back they have to locate Melete.  Rhythm uses a Find spell, which brings them to a cave. Inside is a friendly female dragon, the Dragon Lady.  She had found the Writer’s Block and taken it with her, but she willingly returns it to them.  They spend the night in her cave.  Cyrus has a dream, which inspires him to write another play, “The Dream”.  There is a part for the Dragon Lady, so she will join them at the camp after they get back.

Back at the camp, Cyrus tells Curtis about the threats on Kadence’s life.  Curtis detects that there is a curse on her, and deactivates it.  But who could be responsible?  Could it be Ragna or his agents?

Demoness Metria arrives and Cyrus gives her the part of the dragon’s avatar within a dream environment.  She will not have to speak – just mime the words as the Dragon Lady speaks them, so Metria’s difficulty with vocabulary is not a problem.

“The Dream” is to be performed at Crabapple’s village.

Tuff has been given the role of the leading man in “The Dream”.  But while setting up the stage, a rock falls on his leg and injures him.  Rhythm can’t heal him without revealing her magical powers.  He is taken to one of the cottages to recover.  But Cyrus has to substitute for him in the performance.

During the performance, Metria is required to kiss Cyrus, but she does this so emphatically that Rhythm becomes jealous.

Cyrus will need one more play before he can take the troupe on tour.  In the meantime, he needs someone to organise the itinerary.  He sends Piper, who will ride Don, and Dusty Dust Devil, to scout out the villages.  Don can provide protection for the 13-year-old Piper, and he has a communication device in his brain with which he can report back to Cyrus.  And with his own robotic brain, Cyrus can tune in and observe what Don is seeing and hearing.

Piper’s party comes to a village called Unwelcome. It is well named – strangers are not welcome in this village.  But they find a woman called Shaunna who welcomes them into her home.  Shaunna is not popular with the other villagers because her attitude is contrary to the spirit of the village.  But she exerts her talent, the Seldom Scene: people outside the house are unable to locate the house.  Piper thinks this talent could come in handy with the troupe, when they are setting up scenery and changing costumes.  She invites Shaunna to come with them.  Cyrus communicates his approval to Don.  So Shaunna joins Piper’s party when they move on.

Cyrus writes a new play, “The Riddle”.  It will include as characters the Good Magician and all of his wives.  (The Good Magician has six wives: Dara Demoness, Maiden Taiwan, Rose of Roogna, Sofia Socksorter, the Gorgon and MareAnne. They take turns a month at a time being in the castle with him.)

Metria comes to Cyrus and says she has become bored and wants to leave.  Cyrus had hoped she would play the part of Dara Demoness in “The Riddle”.  But the real Dara is Metria’s friend, and Metria doesn’t want to offend her.  Metria departs.

Piper’s party encounters a woman crying on the bypath.  This is Demoness Kay (D. Kay = decay): she is a demoness/zombie crossbreed, and hasn’t been able to fit into either society.  Cyrus communicates his approval to hire her, to play the part of Dara, so Kay joins Piper’s group.

Piper’s party comes to a zombie village.  When they hear that a zombie will be in one of the plays, they willingly agree to sign up to have the troupe perform in their village.

The next village is Rolando, a village of robots whose program derives from Cyrus’s father Roland.  They agree to sign up.

The next village is Gnobody, the home of the Gnobody Gnomes.  Piper speaks to one of them called Gnonentity, but it seems they are not interested.  But then Piper suggests that one of them could play the part of Magician Humfrey, because of the Magician’s gnome-like appearance.  Gnonentity agrees to play that role, and the village is signed up.  Gnonentity joins them as they travel on.

Piper signs up several more villages and returns to the camp.  She tells Cyrus she had avoided several villages which had been renamed to cities, which had made her suspicious.  Cyrus tells Piper she would play the part of MareAnne in “The Riddle”.

Cyrus asks Rhythm to investigate the villages which had become cities.  Rhythm magically transports herself to the villages and learns that they are all villages which have been taken over by Ragna Roc: he had changed their names to keep track of his land conquests.  And within those villages he had “deleted” (changed to illusions) all who had opposed him: they had become visible but intangible ghost-like beings.  He had deleted their houses too.

The troupe rehearse “The Riddle”.  Dusti is playing the part of Sofia Socksorter, Xina is playing Maiden Taiwan, Acro is playing Rose of Roogna, and the Witch is playing the Gorgon.  The Dragon Lady, with a suitable costume, plays the part of Demon Xanth, in his form as Nimby, the donkey-headed dragon.  Lady Bug, another actress hired by the troupe, plays Chlorine, the Demon’s wife.

Then the troupe tour the villages Piper had signed up, presenting their plays.  The tour is a success.  Finally they present their plays to the Curse Fiends in their castle under Lake Ogre-Chobee.  The Curse Fiends find it acceptable and certify Curtis as a qualified producer.

To fulfil the mission, the troupe must now tour the cities taken over by Ragna Roc.

The first city is Adver City.  Cyrus and Rhythm enter the city and proceed to the house in the centre, which is normally that of the village elder.  A woman comes out; she introduces herself as Andromeda, Queen of the Dragonflies, and elder for the city.  Cyrus explains that he wishes to present plays in the city.  Andromeda agrees, as long as he stays with her in her house.  Rhythm leaves to explain things to the troupe.

Andromeda explains how the dragonflies, including her husband Perseus, were deleted for not cooperating with Ragna; she was the only one spared.  She must now recruit people for Ragna if there is to be any hope of her people being restored.  She tries to persuade Cyrus to swear allegiance to Ragna.  She is also trying to figure out who Cyrus’s girlfriend is, to make him vulnerable.

The troupe present their plays, and then move on to the next city: Necess City.

Cyrus enters the city, this time accompanied by Piper, Don Donkey and Dusty.  The elder of this city is a 14-year-old winged girl called Orienta.  She is the daughter of Gloha Goblin-Harpy and Graebo Giant.  (Gloha and Graebo’s story is in “Harpy Thyme”.  Graebo, originally a giant, was transformed into a winged goblin like Gloha, in that story.)  Cyrus asks permission to put on plays in the city.  Orienta says she is obliged to try to persuade him to join Ragna Roc.

Orienta tells how she and her parents had come to live in Necess.  Then two of the Roc’s minions had come to force the village to swear allegiance to Ragna.  They had also required two underage girls, including Orienta, to go with them.  Graebo had objected.  Ragna had arrived and the minions had pointed out Orienta’s family as troublemakers.  Ragna had deleted them.  But another villager, Nathaniel, had told Ragna how the minions had tried to take the underage girls, which violated the Adult Conspiracy.  Ragna restored Orienta’s family and deleted the minions instead.  (Ragna doesn’t actually care about the Adult Conspiracy; he just objected to his minions acting without his authority.)  He appointed Orienta as the city elder, and the city swore allegiance to him.

This story reveals to Cyrus that deleted people can be restored.

Since Piper and Dusty are of a similar age to Orienta, they and Don stay with Orienta while the troupe is in town.  The troupe present their plays.  Dusty has become fond of Orienta, and stays with her when the troupe moves on.

The next city is Pompos City.  They discover that the whole city has been deleted!  Cyrus and Curtis proceed to the city elder’s house, and meet the elder, a woman called Layea.  Since she has been deleted, she is visible but intangible, and her speech is inaudible; she communicates with printed signs.  She fetches a woman called Katriana, whose talent is to replay real scenes as illusions.  Katriana shows them what had happened.

A female roc called Roc Ette lived near the village.  She owned a rock mine, and the villagers had a deal with her to mine gems from the mine.  These were ugly gems; women wearing them appeared unattractive, which discouraged aggressive males from approaching them.  The gems were therefore very valuable and the village had become prosperous.

A tribe of goblins had become envious of the village’s wealth, and had attacked.  But Roc Ette, with the help of some of the village men had fetched hate elixir and poured it on the goblins; the goblins had attacked each other and been wiped out.

Some time later one of Ragna’s minions had come to try to get the village to swear allegiance to the Roc.  But Layea had tricked him into drinking lethe water, and he forgot what his mission was.  This was repeated with a second minion.

One day Roc Ette met Ragna Roc.  He invited her to be his companion.  She was interested, until she discovered he already had a harem of three roc hens, and she rejected him.  From then on she was followed around by rocs loyal to Ragna.  The villagers of Pompos hid her in the mine, and covered her with a tent which camouflaged her.  After a while it seemed that the rocs had stopped searching for her.  She emerged, but the rocs had been waiting in ambush.  Ragna deleted her flight feathers, and she was taken to the Roc’s castle.  Ragna punished the village for protecting her by deleting it.

The troupe puts on their plays. Although they were deleted, the villagers could still enjoy entertainment like this.

The next city is Elasti City.  Everything in this city is made of rubber or elastic.  Cyrus, Rhythm and Kadence go to the city elder’s house.  The elder is a woman called Princess Lullaby.  She had been expecting them.

Elasti City had quite willingly signed on with the Roc.  Lullaby tries to persuade Cyrus to do the same.  She seems to know a lot about Cyrus and his mission.  She believes that he is a pedophile, with a relationship with both Rhythm and Kadence.  She tells him that Ragna would be quite willing to support Cyrus’s lifestyle.  And she says there is a spy in the troupe who has been providing Ragna with information.

The troupe present their plays to the city.  Afterwards Lullaby tells Cyrus that the troupe is invited to go to Ragna’s castle.

There is a massive basket outside the city.  The troupe gets in, and 6 rocs come and carry the basket to Rock Candy Castle, where Ragna lives.  They are met by a group of people, and each member of the troupe is assigned a guide.  They are shown to a cluster of cottages where they would stay while at the castle.

Cyrus and Rhythm are summoned to an interview with Ragna Roc.  They are taken to the Roc’s nest within the castle.  Ragna communicates in squawks, which are translated by a woman called Em Pathy.

Em Pathy reveals that Ragna knows Rhythm’s true identity, and that her sisters are also present.  Rhythm is wearing two ribbons, but these are her sisters, Melody and Harmony, transformed; they now transform back into their normal forms.  Ragna is aware of their intention to fight against him.  He regards himself as a god; this coming battle will be a battle between the god and mortals for the Land of Xanth.

The troupe will be allowed to present their plays over the next three days.  And then the battle will be held.  Ragna seems to have equal power to the three princesses combined.

Can Cyrus somehow tip the scales?  And does the prophecy, “Two to the Fifth”, provide a clue to how Ragna Roc can be defeated?

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