Up in a Heaval (2002)
[In this story, Umlaut must deliver a series of letters, which shapes his journey. I have marked in bold the intended recipients, at the point where Umlaut selects the letter.]
Umlaut is a good-natured but awkward young man of 17. His talent is emulation, that is, he can make himself appear to be something different from himself, within certain limits.
But currently he is on the run from his girlfriend, Sherry. Her kisses had been like wine, but he can’t remember what came afterwards. And her father is threatening to make him marry her.
He makes his way to Castle Zombie, and joins a group of zombie girls, and emulates a zombie girl. (Breanna and Justin are in charge of Castle Zombie since the Zombie Master and Millie retired.) But Breanna comes and orders him to muck out the dungeon. As he crosses the drawbridge he meets Justin, who gives him directions, and says that the dungeon has a dragon, and the dragon manure is building up.
Umlaut finds his way to the dungeon, and comes face-to-face with the dragon. But the dragon seems to be friendly, so Umlaut sets to work.
Soon Breanna comes, and realising he is not a zombie girl, says he doesn’t need to do the work. But Umlaut insists on completing the job, and also finding out about the dragon. Breanna says the dragon’s name is Drivel; he was in the dungeon when she and Justin took over from the Zombie Master and Millie, and they don’t know anything about him. She brings food for Umlaut and the dragon.
Umlaut communicates with the dragon, asking questions to which the dragon nods or shakes his head. (Umlaut becomes quite skilled at communicating with creatures that can’t speak the human language. Sometimes, he asks questions to which the creature responds, other times he emulates that kind of creature and communicates in that creature’s language.) And Umlaut discovers that it isn’t a dragon, it is a female water serpent whose name is Sesame. She had been chased by a persistent male land serpent, whose attentions she didn’t want, and taken refuge in the Castle Zombie dungeon. But there had been a storm, and she had got shut in; Breanna and Justin had assumed that she was supposed to be there, so had not let her out. Sesame also has the talent of emulation; she had been emulating a male dragon.
But now Umlaut can arrange that she be let out. Sesame wants to make sure the land serpent is not still hanging around. They decide that when they leave the castle they will go adventuring together. Umlaut spends the night in the dungeon with Sesame, and completes the work in the morning. He then goes to explain things to Breanna.
As Umlaut goes up the stairs, he notices a pile of letters that have been pushed through a slot from outside, and haven’t been collected. One of them is addressed to Demon Jupiter, and is from Mundania. He goes to Breanna, explains about the supposed dragon, and tells her about the letters. She hadn’t known about the letters being delivered; in fact there are lots of things about the castle that the Zombie Master hadn’t told them when he and Millie moved out. She takes the letter addressed to Demon Jupiter, and sends it as an E-mail attachment via the Internet. She sends zombies to check that the land serpent isn’t in the vicinity.
All is clear, so Umlaut and Sesame leave the castle. They decide to find out where the letters had come from. Sesame can follow the trail by smell. They follow the trail through the jungle until they get to a river, where they lose the trail.
Then Sammy Cat turns up. Sammy is Jenny Elf’s cat, and has the talent of being able to find anything except home. But Jenny had married the werewolf prince Jeremy in “Zombie Lover” and now lives on the Isle of Wolves. Sammy had felt out of place amongst the werewolves, so he’d decided to go on an adventure. But now he can’t find his way back to the Isle again, as that is now his home. They make a deal: if Sammy can take them to where the trail leads they will help him get home.
So Sammy leads them downstream to where the trail reaches the sea. When Umlaut says he wanted to know who was delivering the letters, Sammy leads them back, waits for a while, and then they see a huge snail emerging from the river. It has a knapsack and is labelled “Mundania Snails”.
Sammy decides he doesn’t want to go home yet; he wants to continue adventuring with Umlaut and Sesame.
Umlaut, Sesame and Sammy return to Castle Zombie, and report what they have found to Breanna. The snail must be delivering letters from Mundania to Castle Zombie, to be delivered on to other people in Xanth.
Then Demoness Metria turns up with a message from Good Magician Humfrey. Demon Jupiter had become so angry with the letter he had received, that he has hurled his Red Spot towards Earth; the Red Spot is a huge storm on the planet Jupiter, and would destroy Earth, and Xanth with it. The Red Spot is currently hurtling through space towards them.
Umlaut, Sesame and Sammy decide to go to the Good Magician to find out what they can do about it. They fly there in a cage carried by the zombie roc Roy.
They enter the Good Magician’s Castle and Umlaut asks the Good Magician how they can prevent the Red Spot from destroying Xanth. Humfrey says, “Deliver the letters,” and will say no more. They are puzzled; apparently this is both the Answer, and the Service to pay for the Answer.
They return to Castle Zombie and inform Breanna. She hands Umlaut a knapsack containing the letters. She had taken one addressed to her, which had congratulated her on her wedding. She warns Umlaut to read each letter before delivering it, to ensure it doesn’t cause the recipient to get angry like Demon Jupiter.
They decide to deliver the letter to the Zombie Master first, so they can ask him about the letter deliveries to Castle Zombie. The Zombie Master has retired to Zombie World, one of Ida’s moons. So they first have to go to Princess Ida at Castle Roogna. Sammy races off, with Sesame following, and Umlaut riding her while emulating a light serpent rider.
They eventually reach Castle Roogna and meet the three princesses, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, now 6 years old. The princesses direct them to Princess Ida’s room.
Umlaut also has a letter for Ida. He hadn’t read it yet, so he reads it aloud to her. It is from a Mundane woman called Arjayess. (Subsequently Umlaut discovers that several of the letters are from her.) [The author credits a reader for these letters in the Author’s Note; she appears to be Arjayess’s alter ego in real life. The letters are significant in having shaped this adventure.] The letter is friendly, with no cause to make Ida upset. The writer describes how much she has in common with Ida.
Ida tells them the Zombie Master had prepared a trail of glowing footprints for zombies and other visitors to follow, to travel to Zombie World. She gets them to lie down and sniff a potion; their souls separate from their bodies and move toward, and land on, the moon Ptero. (People from Xanth who visit Ptero, or the other moons of Ida, in spirit form, find that their spirits behave like physical bodies while on those worlds.)
They follow the footprints to Ptero’s version of Castle Roogna and meet Ptero’s counterparts of the three princesses, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, who are 23 years old. The princesses remember the travellers from when they were 6. [The rules of Ptero are complicated and confusing; it now seems that the inhabitants of Ptero have the memories of their counterparts in Xanth. In some sense they are the same people.] The princesses escort the travellers to Princess Ida, who is 17 years older than her Xanth counterpart. The process of travelling from moon to moon is more streamlined than that which Forrest Faun experienced in “Faun & Games”. The travellers (who are already in soul form) can proceed directly to the next moon, Pyramid, without having to lie down and sniff the potion again. They continue on from moon to moon, following the glowing footprints, and finally arrive on Zombie World.
There the footprints stop, but Sammy can take them the rest of the way to the Zombie Master. However, they are blocked by a swarm of bees – these are “zom-bees”! and have to take an alternative route. They get a ride on a boat across the Emergen Sea from a black zombie man called Preston.
As they sail, Umlaut reads the letter for the Zombie Master. It is from Helpmaster, Universal Aid, Mundania, and expresses concern whether the Zombie Master is wise to hand over the Castle to two new people. Obviously the letter has been quite delayed.
But now the boat comes to the Dire Straits, where they encounter Scylla and Charybdis (from Greek mythology). Scylla, on one side of the Straits, is a six-headed serpent who grabs and eats sailors from ships. Charybdis, on the other side, is a whirlpool. But Sesame emulates a six-headed serpent, and Scylla withdraws, so they can pass.
They come to this world’s version of Castle Zombie and enter, meet the Zombie Master and Millie, and deliver the letter. The Zombie Master says that the delivery of letters to Castle Zombie in Xanth was planned, but hadn’t been put in place by the time he left. Castle Zombie was chosen because of easy access to the sea and river.
The travellers return to Castle Roogna in Xanth. Umlaut has a letter for Queen Irene, who is away from the castle currently, so Ida arranges that they stay the night. Umlaut suggests that Sesame might like to sleep in the moat, but then they learn that Soufflé Serpent is the resident moat monster, and Sesame is wary of male serpents.
Ida shows them to their room, which contains the Magic Tapestry, which shows scenes from the present or past of any location in Xanth. They tune it to the life of Soufflé Serpent.
The Tapestry shows Soufflé as a young serpent centuries ago. He is near Lake Ogre Chobee when he sees a man running for his life from a pack of werewolves. Then the man is attacked by zombies and harpies. He jumps into the sea and is making for an island where his girlfriend is beckoning. But then a kraken attacks him. Soufflé intervenes and fights off the kraken and carries the man to the island.
But then it is revealed that this is the dress rehearsal for a play by the curse fiends. (The curse fiends are a community of humans who all have the same talent of casting magical curses. They generally keep to themselves. They perform plays.) For his interference, the man and woman curse Soufflé, “to serve an endless life of drudgery and servitude until you find your one true love—who will avoid or reject you.”
Ever since, Soufflé had only been able to get jobs as moat monster; he has worked at all the castles in Xanth, and had no romantic life.
But now Sesame has fallen in love with him. The travellers go together to the moat to speak to Soufflé, but Sesamé discovers she can’t approach Soufflé – this must be an effect of the curse. So she returns to watch on the Tapestry as Umlaut tells Soufflé they have seen his life story and know about the curse, and that Sesame must be his one true love. Hopefully they will be able to abate the curse.
The travellers join Ida and the three little princesses for dinner. Also present are the 11-year-old twins, Princesses Dawn and Eve, and their mother Princess Electra. After dinner Dawn and Eve come to Umlaut. Dawn’s talent is to know everything about any living thing, and Eve’s talent is to know everything about any non-living thing. But Dawn says that Umlaut is not living, and Eve says he is not dead. This is a puzzle.
That evening Umlaut reads the letter addressed to Irene. It is another friendly letter from Arjayess.
King Dor and Queen Irene return the next day, and Umlaut gives Irene the letter. Umlaut also has a letter for Princess Ivy. The Queen tells him that Ivy and her husband Grey are visiting Grey’s parents on the Isle of Cats. And Sammy races off again, with Sesame following, and Umlaut riding her.
They stop for a meal and Umlaut sees a cloud in the sky. He comments on how ugly and small it is. But this is unwise because the cloud is Fracto, the worst of storm clouds, and as they continue, the cloud keeps up with them and gets bigger. Soon there is rain and lightning, and they have to take shelter in a cave.
But the cave belongs to the Ptero-bull, who soon returns to the cave. Not only is it a fearsome beast, but its presence makes them feel terrible. They escape into a passage at the back of the cave, and continue through the cave system until they emerge into a residential chamber. There are two women there; an unusually tall woman named Cory and an unusually short woman named Tessa. After the initial surprise, the women welcome them and provide hospitality.
But when it is time to go, it is still raining. Cory and Tessa have a combined talent of “sidestepping”; they can step into an adjacent realm, and travel in it. They take the travellers into this realm; they are all unaffected by the rain, they can see the trees of their own realm, but they can walk through them, and the trip to the coast is a lot quicker. Cory and Tessa say goodbye and return home.
The Isle of Cats is one of many islands off the coast, which are not all accessible from Xanth at the same time. Para Boat (an intelligent boat who appeared in “Zombie Lover” and “Xone of Contention”) arrives to take them across to the island. They wait until the Isle appears and then get into Para. As they cross to the Isle, Umlaut reads the letter for Ivy; it is another friendly letter from Arjayess. When they arrive, Sammy leads them to the home of Grey’s parents; they meet Grey’s parents Murphy and Vadne, and also Ivy and Grey, and the cat Claire Voyant. Umlaut gives the letter to Ivy.
Sammy and Claire leave the house and climb a tree to get to know each other and tell each other their life histories. Claire’s talent is clairvoyance.
When the travellers leave, Claire joins them; she believes she is necessary for the success of the mission.
As they cross the water, Claire warns Para, who thus avoids being caught in a whirlpool which had suddenly appeared. It is Charybdis! How could it have come here from Zombie World?
Umlaut wonders about the various things that have gone wrong. Early on, Metria had tried to discourage them from the mission. Could she have been behind the various difficulties they have had on the mission? Apparently realising he had been thinking about her, Metria appears. Umlaut asks her if she has been trying to prevent them deliver the letters. Metria disappears. Claire confirms that Umlaut’s supposition is true. But why would Metria want the destruction of Xanth?
As they arrive on land, Para (who can also travel on land) wants to continue to carry them, so they stay in the boat. The next letter is for Snortimer Bed Monster. (Snortimer’s story is in “Golem in the Gears”.) Sammy explains to Umlaut about bed monsters, and suggests that Umlaut must have a monster under his bed at home. But Umlaut can’t remember a monster, or a bed, or a home. In fact he can’t remember any of his life before his time with his girlfriend Sherry.
Claire tells him that, according to her sense of clairvoyance, Umlaut doesn’t exist. This seems to tie in with what Dawn and Eve had told him.
Sammy tells Umlaut Snortimer’s story, and that he is now at the Faun and Nymph Retreat, protecting the fauns and nymphs from predators.
Para has an idea how to get to the Faun and Nymph Retreat. He returns to the sea, and soon Mela Merwoman arrives; Para has called her. She organises transport by a creature called a water fissure, (also referred to as a submarine) called Fissure Cutbait. Cutbait initially appears as a crack in the sea surface. Para enters the crack and descends into Cutbait’s interior, which encloses them. Mela enters the boat with them. They are surrounded by water, but can breathe.
As they travel, Umlaut reads the letter for Snortimer. It is from a dust bunny who lives under Arjayess’s bed, who thus has something in common with Snortimer. The bunny is asking Snortimer if he knows of some charm that will enable him to communicate with Arjayess, as he is in constant danger from her vacuum cleaner. Umlaut decides it is safe to deliver to Snortimer.
The submarine transfers from the sea into the River of Grass (which is full of blades of grass), and from there into the subterranean labyrinth of the aqui-fur (full of watery fur). But Cutbait has got lost, and they are in danger of running out of air. But Sammy can direct them to an oxygen tent, to refresh their air. He points in the direction of the tent, and Sesame orients herself in the same direction, so Mela, swimming out in front of Cutbait, can lead her in the right direction. They find the tent and the air is refreshed.
Cutbait had followed a sign which pointed the way to the Faun and Nymph Retreat. She returns to the sign. Claire says it is pointing the wrong way, and points out the correct direction. Someone must have altered the sign.
They arrive in the lake at the Faun and Nymph Retreat. Cutbait and Mela depart. They locate Snortimer’s bed, with Snortimer under it, and Umlaut reads the letter to him. Snortimer can relate to the dust bunny, as he has several friends who are dust bunnies, but he says a charm wouldn’t work in Mundania as it has no magic.
There is a scream from one of the nymphs. She and a faun have run into an invisible wall. Claire tells Umlaut there are six bullies in the area, tormenting the fauns and nymphs according to their magic talents; one of these bullies has the talent of creating invisible walls. The bullies had been confined to the Brain Coral’s pool, but had escaped. Umlaut emulates an ogre and Sesame emulates a dragon and the group rounds up the bullies, directing them in Snortimer’s direction, who tips them into a pool. (Snortimer must remain under the bed during daylight hours.) [In “Golem in the Gears”, Snortimer had a chip of reverse wood which enabled him to stand daylight, but he doesn’t seem to be using this anymore.]
There is a great shaking of the ground. A big heavy female centaur called Epi Centaur arrives. She has come from the Brain Coral’s pool to capture the bullies and escort them back. She is grateful to Umlaut and his companions, and promises to arrange transport to their next destination, Grundy Golem’s home.
A high horse pulling a toe truck (a truck made of toes) arrives. Umlaut, Sesame, Sammy, Claire and Para get on. They travel along the trollway which will take them to the north of Xanth. At the Gap Chasm they take an underground tunnel, which goes under the chasm. Grundy Golem lives in a place called Euphoria, which is north of Xanth and therefore outside Xanth’s magic.
Umlaut reads the letter for Grundy. It is another friendly letter from Arjayess.
They come to the edge of the magic realm. The horse departs with the toe truck. Para must stay within the magic region; the others can continue on, but will not be able to use their magic talents.
They come to a tiny house with a sign marked “Golem”. Umlaut knocks on the door, and Rapunzel (Grundy’s wife) comes out. She is tiny. Umlaut hands over the letter; it is bigger than she is. She suggests that Umlaut take the path behind the house to locate their daughter, who can read the letter to her and Grundy.
Leaving Sesame, Sammy and Claire with Rapunzel, Umlaut sets off along the path, keeping watch on the ground for a tiny child. But when he meets her, she is a normally-sized girl of 14. She introduces herself as Surprise Golem.
Surprise’s father Grundy is a “golem who has been made real”, who is smaller than an elf. Her mother Rapunzel has both human and elf ancestry. She can change her size, from elf-size to human size, and any size in between, and a little beyond these limits. She normally makes herself the same size as Grundy. (There are more details about Grundy and Rapunzel in “Golem in the Gears”.) Surprise has inherited her mother’s ability to change size. So with these parents, Surprise is essentially human. Golem is her family name, not her species.
She teases Umlaut for his social awkwardness, but it is apparent she is fond of him. She tells how she had gone to the boundary of the magic region and met Metria, who had told her her ideal man was coming. She tells how she has dreamed of him, and he admits he has dreamed of her. They are in love and they kiss.
Surprise explains how she has an apparently endless series of different talents, but once she uses a talent, it is gone, she can’t use it again. She is afraid she will run out of talents. But using her magic is instinctive. To avoid her using up her magic, the Golem family moved to Euphoria, where she can’t use her magic.
Umlaut tells her how he can’t remember his past, and that possibly he doesn’t exist. But Surprise is determined to make their love work.
They return to the Golem house; Grundy has arrived in the meantime. When Rapunzel hears that Surprise and Umlaut are in love, she insists that Umlaut leaves and continues with his mission. So Umlaut and his companions depart. They meet up with Para, get into the boat, and continue on south.
The next letter is for Demon Professor Grossclout.
Umlaut tells the others what had happened between himself and Surprise. He suggests that Metria had encouraged their romance to distract Umlaut from his mission. Hearing her name, Metria appears. She confirms Umlaut’s speculation, but won’t say why she is interfering with the mission.
Umlaut reads out the letter for Grossclout to Metria. The writer has signed himself “A Concerned Citizen”, and is apparently a demon. He is indignant that a demoness, who is a former student of Grossclout, has acquired part of a soul, and become caring. He proposes to the professor that he have the soul removed from her. This is obviously a reference to Metria (refer “Harpy Thyme”), and Metria bursts out laughing.
Then, because Metria likes to tease her former professor, she says she will take them to Grossclout. First she takes them to the sea, where Para can visit the ParaDice Islands, while the rest of them visit Professor Grossclout. Then she disguises herself as Umlaut’s shirt. She takes Umlaut and the others to where Grossclout is teaching a class in the open air. The student demons are either humanoid or have animal characteristics, so Umlaut, Sesame, Sammy and Claire fit right in, while pretending to be members of the class. Grossclout asks the class questions about the various creatures and objects in the garden; unlike the other class members, Umlaut keeps getting the right answers to the questions.
Grossclout realises who Umlaut is, and that Metria is there, disguised as his shirt. Umlaut delivers the letter. Grossclout says the writer of the letter is misinformed; Grossclout and the other demons had (in “Harpy Thyme”) engineered the situation where Metria would acquire a part of a soul, believing it would keep her out of mischief – but it seems that Metria is still as mischievous as ever. Umlaut explains his mission, and Grossclout says he will investigate. He conjures them back to the ocean shore where they meet Para.
The next letter is for Tandy Nymph. Sammy sets off, and Para follows.
Umlaut thinks of Surprise and says her name. She appears in the boat. But she is intangible; she has arrived by astral travel. This means she has used up that talent, but she thought it was worth it to be with him. After a while the astral power fades and she disappears.
Umlaut reads the letter for Tandy. It is another friendly letter from Arjayess.
They travel alongside a gully covered by a spiderweb. It is covered with spiders who are riding little boards: they are surfing the web. A bear attacks Para, and they fall into the gully. They can’t get out without breaking the web and upsetting the spiders. Sammy goes to get help.
He returns with two children: the boy is Epoxy Ogre, and the girl is Benzine Brassie. They are 11-year-old twins. Epoxy’s talent is to make things hard and fast, Benzine’s is to make things soft and loose. But neither of these talents helps in this situation. They go and return with their older brother Brusque Brassy. His talent is to make things hard and heavy or soft and light. With their combined talents they are able to manipulate the web to allow Para to exit the gully.
They discover that these children are the grandchildren of Tandy. Their parents are Esk Ogre and Bria Brassie (who previously appeared in “Vale of the Vole”). Epoxy and Benzine join them in the boat, and they continue on to the home of Esk and Bria. Bria tells the children they can continue on with the travellers, to show them where Tandy lives.
They eventually reach the home of Smash Ogre and Tandy Nymph and deliver the letter. (Smash and Tandy’s story is in “Ogre, Ogre”.)
The next letter is for Com Pewter. Sammy leads the way and the others follow in Para. They come across a girl who is saying something unintelligible. Claire tells Umlaut that the girl’s name is Tacy; she can’t speak Xanthian, she can only speak the Mundane language, which is strange since she doesn’t come from Mundania.
They continue on. Umlaut realises that Tacy is in the boat with them. Then the girl starts speaking intelligibly, and tells him that she is Surprise; she is using the talent of spirit overlapping to occupy Tacy’s body. But then she starts getting her words wrong (this is a distinctive characteristic of Demoness Metria, which often gives her away); Umlaut realises that this is Metria; she had pretended to be both Tacy and Surprise. Umlaut asks her again why she is trying to stop him delivering the letters; Metria replies that she loves her son, Demon Ted. She disappears.
But Sammy has become lost; something had led him astray, and they have ended up in the Realm of Lost Objects. Maybe Metria had got Com Pewter to reverse Sammy’s magic, making it appear that Com Pewter was not where he actually was, and this resulted in Sammy going in the opposite direction. Sammy should go the opposite way to what his talent indicates is the right direction.
So they return along their track, and encounter Tacy again – the real one this time. Umlaut thinks Com Pewter might be able to help her, and indicates she should join them in the boat, which she does. He gets her to say the name “Surprise”, and soon Surprise appears in Tacy’s body. Umlaut asks her some questions to ensure it is the real Surprise this time. He tells her about Metria, and Surprise suggests that someone is threatening Metria’s son. Umlaut and Surprise kiss before she leaves Tacy’s body.
Umlaut reads the letter for Com Pewter. This is from Arjayess. She is seeking information from Com Pewter to help with the migraines she suffering; the letter is somewhat confused, as if she is suffering a migraine while she writes it.
They cross the Gap Chasm on the invisible bridge, and enter Com Pewter’s cave. Com Pewter greets them, and Umlaut tells him he has a letter for him. (Although Com Pewter is supposedly a nice machine now, he still seems to be rather mean.) Tristan Troll, who serves as Com Pewter’s mouse, accepts the letter and holds it up to Com Pewter’s screen. Tristan proposes that he summon a search engine from the Electri-City to range the Information Highway to obtain the answer for Arjayess.
Umlaut brings Tacy to Com Pewter and asks if he can help her. Com Pewter has the ability to change reality in his vicinity. He enables her to speak Xanthian and asks what work she can do for him. She says she can sweep the cave and add curtains, a rug and chairs. Com Pewter wants her to play card games with him as well. So she will be able to speak Xanthian as long as she remains in Com Pewter’s cave.
The next letter is for Bubbles Dog. Kim from Mundania had found Bubbles in Xanth in “Demons Don’t Dream”, and had taken her home with her at the end of that adventure. She had brought her back during her visit to Xanth in “Roc and a Hard Place”. Then, because Bubbles was likely to live longer in Xanth than in Mundania, she left Bubbles with a woman called Anathe Ma.
The letter is a friendly one from Alaric, Arjayess’s dog.
They come to the Gap Chasm again. Para takes a route down a slanting ledge-path down the side of chasm to the bottom. They meet the Gap Dragon. Umlaut is alarmed, but Para is friends with the dragon. So Umlaut greets the dragon and tells him they are delivering a letter to Bubbles Dog, and that they had delivered one to the dragon’s friend Ivy. Para continues to the opposite side of the chasm and finds another ledge path to exit from the chasm.
Then they have difficulties with a column of fire ants, but eventually overcome this. Surprise visits again, this time by telepathic communication.
They eventually come to Anathe Ma’s house and explain about the letter. Anathe Ma is ugly but pleasant, and invites them in. They meet Bubbles Dog.
The next letter is for Nada Naga. It is from King Cobra in Mundania, and is not a very pleasant one. He thinks she is letting down the reputation of snakes, who are supposed to be evil and dangerous. Instead she socialises with princesses and has married a prince.
Umlaut consults with Sesame; should he deliver the letter? She tells him that Nada is not a snake; she is a naga, a cross between a snake and a human, able to take either snake or human forms. She is reportedly a nice person, so is not likely to take drastic action when she receives the letter.
Umlaut asks Sammy to take a comfortable route rather than a direct one. Sammy leads them eastwards through the jungle till they get to the coast, then Para enters the sea and sails northwards up the coast. They stop at Day Ton a Beach, where it is perpetual day. Surprise comes to Umlaut in a dream.
They continue sailing up the coast, land where Sammy indicates and continue inland till they arrive at Goblin Mountain. (Nada must be visiting her friend Gwenny Goblin.)
Metria appears; she tells them that there is a solution for Soufflé’s curse, but they must address it now. Claire indicates Metria is telling the truth but not the whole truth. Sesame doesn’t want to leave Umlaut alone with the goblins, but Metria says that the two cats can go to address the problem of the curse. The cats head off and Umlaut, Sesame and Para continue to the entrance of Goblin Mountain; a guard directs them to the tunnel they should take.
They come to a door and Umlaut knocks. It is opened by Gwenny Goblin, the chiefess. Umlaut says it is Nada Naga he has come to see, but Gwenny says she wants to talk to him first. She provides refreshments for the group. But then it seems that Gwenny is trying to romance him; it turns out that Metria had told her that Umlaut was a prince from a foreign land, looking to marry a princess and form an economic or defensive liaison with a goblin tribe. Umlaut tells her it is not true, he is just delivering a letter to Nada, and besides he is already committed to Surprise. This is embarrassing for both of them. Gwenny escorts him to an adjacent chamber where Nada is staying, with her daughter DeMonica. Umlaut delivers the letter, telling her it is not very polite. Nada says she’s quite used to receiving nasty letters.
Meanwhile, Sammy has started to rush off to solve Soufflé’s curse, but Claire stops him. She wants to know more about where they are going. Metria appears, and Claire insists she tell them. Metria says there is a demon magician called Tallyho in the gourd (the dream realm) who assigns talents to babies before they are delivered. Since he had assigned the curse fiends’ talents of cursing, he should be able to nullify the curse.
Sammy and Claire come to a patch of gourds; they lie down and look into the peepholes, and enter the dream realm in spirit form. They travel through several scenes within the gourd until they meet Xanthus, a horse from Greek mythology. He carries the two cats to where Tallyho lives.
But Tallyho tells them it is not true; he can’t abate curses. The only thing he could do is assign the talent of nullifying curses to a new baby; but then the baby would have to grow up before being able to use the talent. So Tallyho has no practical solution for them. Sammy asks him a question about his job, and Tallyho says that asking this question has fulfilled the condition of his retirement; now his successor will take over, and possibly make mistakes in assigning talents because of his inexperience.
Sammy and Claire leave and meet Xanthus again. But the Night Stallion has ordered that Xanthus bring the cats to him. They meet him and tell them about their mission, and Metria’s part in disrupting it. The Night Stallion says he must investigate. He summons the Day Stallion and tells him to take over; then he leaves. The Day Stallion resolves to clean up the Realm; there will be no more bad dreams.
Xanthus takes the cats back to their entry point into the gourd, but because all the bad dream sets are being dismantled, Xanthus has difficulty finding the way. But finally they return to their bodies, return to Goblin Mountain and rejoin the others.
The next letter is for Jenny Elf. Sammy says he won’t be able to lead them, because he can’t find home. But Claire suggests that now Sammy’s home is with her. Sammy realises this is true; he can now find the way to Jenny.
Umlaut reads the letter for Jenny. It is another friendly letter from Arjayess. She congratulates Jenny on her marriage to Jeremy Werewolf. She describes how she had visions for years before realising she was seeing Xanth. And she has two cats like Sammy.
Metria appears and asks Umlaut about his date with Gwenny, confirming that she had set them up. Umlaut asks again why Metria is doing this. She confesses that the Demoness Fornax threatened to take Demon Ted’s soul. There is a Demon Wager in progress, but Metria doesn’t know the details.
They continue on and stay at a campsite for the night. During the night, there is a commotion; a gang of goblins is hunting a rare and protected creature – a mothalope, a great brightly winged creature with impressive antlers. Umlaut emulates an ogre, and Sesame a dragon, and they scare the goblins off. But they realise that goblins (and other people) are now doing bad things because there are no bad dreams to punish them.
In the morning they continue to the coast and wait for the Isle of Wolves to appear. Then they cross in Para and continue to the palace. Umlaut delivers the letter. Jenny is pleased to see Sammy again, but sorry that he is leaving, to move to the Isle of Cats.
The next letter is to Good Magician Humfrey. It is another letter from Arjayess, with a question for the Magician. She has an antique clock which chimes the hours. The night before, it had chimed twelve times as usual at midnight. But five minutes later it had chimed thirteen times, with a deep resonant chime, different from its usual chime. Ever since, it has chimed with the deep chime. And if she tries to touch it, tiny jolts of electricity spark from its case. It scares her, and she is asking for help.
Metria appears and leaves the 6-year-old children, Ted (her own son) and DeMonica (Nada Naga’s daughter), with them. (As in previous books, she is always looking for babysitters to look after them.) Then Surprise arrives; this time she has transformed herself into a harpy, and flown all the way from her home. Umlaut says he wishes they could be together all the time; Surprise interprets this as a proposal, and accepts. Metria brings them an ornate ring from an ancient treasure chest. Umlaut puts it on Surprise’s bird claw. Surprise departs again. At the end of the day, Metria collects the children.
The next day they arrive at the Good Magician’s Castle. (There are no Challenges, as Umlaut is already performing a Service for the Good Magician.) Umlaut delivers the letter to the Good Magician. Humfrey says that Arjayess’s clock is correct; she must be mistaken. But Claire detects that the letter is telling the truth; it must be Humfrey’s Book of Answers that is wrong. She detects a chip of reverse wood under the book.
Humfrey picks up the reverse wood and gives it to Wira. (Wira is Humfrey’s daughter-in-law, who conducts querents to the Magician. She is blind, but she knows her way around the castle.) However, the chip makes her lose her sense of direction; she walks into a wall.
Umlaut takes the chip and puts it into a bottle of Concentrated Stink Horn Extract, converting it to Diffuse Sweet Rose Intract. [There is no mention of the Magician solving Arjayess’s problem.]
They leave Humfrey’s study and meet the Gorgon, the Good Magician’s current Designated Wife. The next letter is for Rorrim from an organisation called Glassco Imagery, in some far land. Rorrim is an entity who lives within magic mirrors. He has apparently stolen something from Glassco and escaped to Xanth. Glassco have tracked him to Xanth and intend to bring him to trial.
Claire says that if Sammy tracks Rorrim to a magic mirror, he will flee to another magic mirror. He knows that if the letter is delivered he will be captured. But he can only flee once, because if he flees again, Glassco will know where is and will capture him.
The Gorgon says there are only five magic mirrors in Xanth; they are at the Good Magician’s Castle, Castle Roogna, Castle Zombie, the Nameless Castle, and Castle Maidragon. Assuming he is here at the Good Magician’s Castle, he is likely to flee to the Nameless Castle.
Sammy leads them to the magic mirror in the castle. Umlaut attempts to deliver the letter, but there is a flicker, and Rorrim is gone. But the Gorgon says that he would have heard her say he would go to the Nameless Castle, and would have instead gone to Castle Maidragon.
So they set off for Castle Maidragon. When they arrive, they meet Becka the dragon girl; initially she is in dragon form, but transforms into a girl. They tell her about their mission and she takes them to the magic mirror. Claire confirms that Rorrim is in the mirror.
Umlaut tells Rorrim that he has a letter for him. Claire translates for Rorrim; he wants to bargain. He is willing to offer his services to Umlaut if he doesn’t deliver the letter. Rorrim explains that he can show the future, in a year’s time, for any person. He will provide a free sample.
First the mirror displays what will occur if Umlaut accepts Rorrim’s offer, and doesn’t deliver the letter. It shows Umlaut and Surprise hand in hand, with floating hearts around them.
The next scene is what happens if Umlaut rejects Rorrim’s offer. The previous scene shrinks to a third of the mirror, and the other two thirds are blank. These seem to be three possible futures: maybe the blank scenes indicate that Umlaut will not exist.
Umlaut asks to see the future for Sesame and Sammy.
Sesame’s scene is split into two. One half shows chaos; the other is split into two scenes: one shows Sesame and Soufflé frolicking together in the moat, the other shows her confined to the Castle Zombie dungeon.
Sammy’s scene is also split into two: One half shows chaos; the other is split into two scenes: one shows Sammy twining tails with Claire, the other shows him looking bored and unhappy. The last scene appears to be as if he had never met Claire.
But how can Umlaut have a happy future if he doesn’t deliver the letter? Won’t Xanth be destroyed by Jupiter’s Red Spot? Umlaut doesn’t know whether to trust what Rorrim is showing him.
Umlaut does what he believes is his duty, and delivers the letter. What happens next is a big surprise.