Chapter 1. Metria
It wasn’t always easy, being the son of an ogre and a nymph. Sometimes the ogre started smashing things just for the joy of it, or squeezing the juice from stones one-handed, making an awful mess. Sometimes the nymph was rather empty-minded, or threw a tantrum. That was why Esk had made this cosy hideout that no one else knew about. Whenever things became too difficult at home, he came here to relax and unwind. He loved his parents, but there was virtue in solitude too.
He paused to look about and listen carefully. He didn’t want any creature of Xanth, tame or wild, seeing him enter, because then the location would be no secret, and sooner or later his folks would learn of it, and his privacy would be lost.
His hideout was in the hollow trunk of a dead beerbarrel tree. He had been lucky: he had been in the vicinity in the month of AwGhost, when barrel trees gave up the ghost if they were going to, and had seen the spirit departing. “Aw, Ghost!” he had exclaimed in the classic ogre manner, and that had enchanted the tree so that he could take over the husk without creating a local commotion. He had cut a door in the fat trunk that sealed tightly so that it didn’t show from outside, and made vents so that the steamy beer smell could dissipate; his mother, Tandy, would never understand if he came home reeking of beer! Then he had set straw in the bottom, and brought in pillows from a nearby pillow bush, and carved decorative scenes in the walls, and made it perfect. He was rather proud of himself; his only regret was that he could not afford to boast of his accomplishment, because of the necessity for secrecy.
All seemed clear. He hooked his nails into the crevice and pulled the door open. It was a small door, with an irregular outline, so that its contour was not obvious. He ducked down to step through, then drew it carefully closed behind. He stepped across the floor and dropped onto his nest of pillows.
Esk jumped. “Who said that?” he demanded.
“Get your fat mule off me!” The voice came from below.
He looked but saw only pillows. “My fat what?”
“Your fat donkey!” the voice snapped. “Pony, horse, jackass, whatever—off!”
Esk finally got a glimmer of the word that was being sought. He got quickly off the pillows. “Where are you?”
The pillow shifted outline. A mouth formed in its center. “Here, you oaf! What did you think you were doing, putting gross anatomy like that in my face?”
“Never mind. Just don’t do it again, moron.”
“But pillows are supposed to be—”
“Oh? Did you ever ask the pillows’ opinion about that?”
“Well, actually, no, but—”
“So there, imbecile! Now get out and let me sleep.”
Esk got out. Then, as he wended his way home, he pondered. How had he been able to talk to a pillow? He knew of only one person who could talk to an object, and that was the King of Xanth, Dor. Since it was generally understood that talents did not repeat, except in the case of the curse fiends, that meant that it wouldn’t be Esk’s talent. Beside that, he already had a talent: that of protesting. Sometimes his mother said he protested too much, but she did not deny it was magic. Since no one had two magic talents, that, too, eliminated the possibility of talking to inanimate things.
Finally he worked it out. He was not the smartest person, being quarter ogre, but he never let go of a problem, being half human, and usually was able to come to some kind of settlement, however crude. It wasn’t his magic, but the pillow’s magic. He must have picked a special pillow, without realizing: one that was alive. All he needed to do was take it back out to the pillow bush and exchange it for another, and his problem would be solved.
Reassured, he continued on toward home, having forgotten whatever problem had brought him to his hideout. As he neared it he smelled the delicious odor of purple bouillon. That meant that his father, Smash, had gone into his full ogre guise and foraged for the makings. Smash was actually only half ogre, for Esk’s grandparents on that side had been Crunch Ogre and an actress from the curse fiends. But when Smash got ogreish, no one could tell him from a full ogre; he swelled up horrendously and burst out of his trousers. Tandy, however, being of nymphly stock, preferred Smash as a man, so usually that was what he seemed to be.
Esk could not voluntarily turn ogre, but when he got mad enough or desperate enough he did develop some ogre strength. It never lasted long, but of course it didn’t need to; one strike by an ogreishly-powered fist could pulverize the trunk of a rock maple tree. Similarly, he was normally inept at acting, but when he really had to he could become temporarily proficient. That was his heritage from his curse fiend grandmother. Most of the time it was his human heritage that dominated, since he was part human through both of his parents. He was a pretty ordinary person, with gray eyes and nondescript brown hair. He often wished he were otherwise, but really had no choice; he was obviously not destined for any sort of greatness.
But there was no use worrying about that: there was purple bouillon to be eaten!
Two days later, being bored, Esk returned to his hideout. He entered and checked the pillows. They all looked normal. “Which one of you is the live one?” he inquired, but had no answer.
He shrugged. He picked up the whole mass of them and took them out to the pillow bush, unceremoniously dumping them beside it. Then he picked several new ones. He had to do this periodically anyway, so they didn’t get dirty and stale. He carried these to his tree and plopped them down inside.
He hesitated, then eased himself down on them. Contrary to what the living pillow had said, his posterior was not fat; in retrospect he wished he had corrected the pillow about that matter. But he always thought up the smart responses way too late. That, again, was part of his heritage: neither ogres nor nymphs were known for their quickness of wit.
He was hungry, so he brought out a pie he had picked some time ago. It was a humble pie, and they were always best when properly seasoned. This one was decked with sodden raisins, and had a crust that was rocklike, while its main body seemed to be decomposing. It was definitely ready for consumption.
He brought it to his mouth and took an ogreish bite. His teeth came down, dug in—and the pie erupted in his face. Raisins popped out and flew at his eyes, and the crust writhed against his lips. “Get your ugly cat out of here!” the pie exclaimed.
“My ugly what?” Esk asked, startled.
“Your ugly kitten, feline, grimalkin, tabby—”
“Oh, you mean my ugly puss?” he inquired, catching on.
“Your ugly whatever,” the pie agreed, forming a wide mouth. “Just what did you think you were doing, ogreface?”
“Ogreface?” Esp repeated, appreciating the compliment. Then he realized that the pie probably hadn’t meant it that way. “I was trying to—”
“Oh you were, were you! Well, don’t do it again!”
“You never asked the pie whether it wanted to be chewed on, did you?”
“But it’s humble pie! It’s meant to be eaten!”
“A likely story. Now get your dim-witted face out of here so I can rest.”
“Listen, pieface, this is my hideout!” Esk said, developing a smidgeon of heat. “I just tossed out an obnoxious pillow, and I’ll do the same with you! You sure aren’t very humble!”
“You just try to toss this cookie, and you’ll be sorry, bean-brain!”
That did it. Esk carried the pie to the door, pushed the door open, and skated the disk out into the forest. Then he plumped down on his bed of pillows for a snooze.
It was a moderately cool day, and while true ogres loved cold weather, Esk didn’t. He cast about until he found the tattered old blanket he had salvaged for this purpose, and drew it over him.
The blanket writhed and wrapped itself around his feet. Then it squeezed his legs, and inched up his torso, constricting as it did.
“Hey!” Esk exclaimed.
“Hay yourself, moo-brain!” the blanket said, forming a mouth on its surface. But it did not pause in its squeezing; Esk’s legs were getting uncomfortable.
Abruptly concerned, he thrust his legs apart, the ogre strength coming to him. The blanket tore—but then it fogged and rose up as a flying thing, hovering before him. “Listen, dung-head,” its mouth said, “now I’m really going to make you sorry!”
But Esk’s ogre dander was up. He grabbed the blanket with both hands. “We’ll see about that, threadface!” Then he tore it asunder.
The pieces fogged again. The whole thing became vapor. This time it re-formed into the shape of a demoness. “You’re stronger than you look, bug-wit. But how long do you think you can oppose me?”
“What wit?” Esk asked, confused again.
“Flea-wit, ant-wit, chigger-wit—”
“Whatever. Why don’t you answer the question?”
Now at last Esk caught on. “The pillow—the pie—they were all you! You assumed their forms!&...