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Iers Anthony - pell For Chameleon

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Trent was gone now-but his works remained, for there was no other transformer to change them back. Holographs, hotseats, and invisible wails were qualifying talents, but transformation was of a different order. Only once in a generation did such power manifest in an individual, and it seldom manifested twice in the same form. Justin had been one of Magician Trent's annoyances-no one remembered exactly what he had done-so Justin was a tree. No one had the ability to change him back into a man.

Justin's own talent had been voice projection-not the parlor trick that was ventriloquism, or the trivial talent of insane laughter, but genuine comprehensible utterance at a distance without the use of vocal cords. He retained this talent as a tree, and as he had a great deal of time for thought, villagers often came to this tree for advice. Often it was good advice. Justin was no genius, but a tree had greater objectivity about human problems.

It occurred to Bink that Justin might actually be better off as a tree than he had been as a man. He liked people, but it was said that in his human form he had not been handsome. As a tree he was quite stately, and no threat to anyone.

They veered to approach Justin. Suddenly a voice spoke directly in front of them: "Do not approach, friends; ruffians are lurking."

Bink and Sabrina drew up short. "Is that you, Justin?'' she asked. "Who is lurking?"

But the tree could not hear as well as it could speak, and did not answer. Wood did not seem to make the best ears.

Bink, angry, took a step toward it. "Justin is public scenery," he muttered. "Nobody has a right to-"

"Please, Bink!" Sabrina urged, pulling back on arm. "We don't want any trouble."

No, she never wanted any trouble. He would not go so far as to call this a fault in her, but at times it became annoyingly inconvenient Bink himself never let trouble bar him from a matter of principle. Still, Sabrina was beautiful, and he had caused her trouble enough already tonight. He turned to accompany her away from the tree.

"Hey, no fair!" a voice exclaimed. "They're going away."

"Justin must've tattled," another cried.

"Then let's chop down Justin."

Bink halted again. "They wouldn't!" he said.

"Of course they wouldn't," Sabrina agreed. "Justin is a village monument. Ignore them."

But the voice of the tree came again, a bit misplaced in relation to Bink and Sabrina--evidence of poor concentration. "Friends, please fetch the King quickly. These ruffians have an axe or something, and they've been eating locoberries."

"An axe!" Sabrina exclaimed in sheer horror.

"The King is out of town," Bink muttered. "Anyway, he's senile."

"And he hasn't summoned more than a summer shower in years," Sabrina agreed. "Kids didn't dare make so much mischief when he had his full magic."

"We certainly didn't," Bink said. "Remember the hurricane flanked by six tornadoes he summoned to put down the last wiggle spawning? He was a real Storm King then. He-"

There was the ringing sound of metal biting into wood. A scream of sheer agony erupted from the air. Bink and Sabrina jumped.

"That's Justin!" she said. "They're doing it."

"No time for the King anyway," Bink said. He charged toward the tree.

"Bink, you can't!" Sabrina cried after him, "You don't have any magic."

So the truth came out, in this moment of crisis. She didn't really believe he had a talent. "I've got muscle, though!" he yelled back. "You go for help."

Justin screamed again as the blade struck a second time. It was an eerie wooden noise. There was laughter-the merry mirth of kids out on a lark, having no care at all what consequences their actions might have. Loco? This was mere insensitivity.

Then Bink was there. And-he was alone. Just when he was in the mood for a good fight. The malicious pranksters had scattered.

He could guess their identities-but he didn't have to. "Jama, Zink, and Potipher," Justin Tree said. "Oooo, my foot!"

Bink squatted to inspect the cut. The white wood-wound was clearly visible in contrast to the shoelike bark of the base of the tree trunk. Driblets of reddish sap were forming, very much like blood. Not too serious for a tree this size, but surely extremely uncomfortable.

"I'll get some compresses for that," Bink said. "There's some coral sponge in the forest near here. Yell if anyone bothers you while I'm gone."

"I will," Justin said. "Hurry." Then, as an afterthought: "You're a great guy, Bink. Much better than some who-uh-"

"Than some who have magic," Bink finished for him. "Thanks for trying to spare my feelings." Justin meant well, but sometimes spoke before he thought. It came from having a wooden brain.

"It isn't fair that louts like Jama are called citizens, while you-"

"Thanks," Bink said gruffly, moving off. He agreed completely, but what was the use talking about it? He watched out for anyone lurking in the bushes, waiting to bother Justin when the tree was unprotected, but saw nobody. They were really gone.

Jama, Zink, and Potipher, he thought darkly-the village troublemakers. Jama's talent was the manifestation of a sword, and that was what had chopped Justin's trunk. Anyone who could imagine that such vandalism was funny-Bink remembered one of his own bitter experiences with that bunch, not so many years ago. Intoxicated by locoberries, the three had lurked in ambush along one of the paths beyond the village, just looking for mischief. Bink and a friend had walked into that trap, and been backed up against the cloud of poison gas that was Potipher's magic talent, while Zink made mirage-holes near their feet and Jama materialized flying swords for them to duck. Some sport!

Bink's friend had used his magic to escape, animating a golem from a stick of wood that took his place. The golem had resembled him exactly, so that it fooled the pranksters. Bink had known the difference, of course, but he had covered for his friend. Unfortunately, though the golem was immune to poison gas, Bink was not. He had inhaled some of it, and lost consciousness even as help arrived. His friend had brought Bink's mother and father-Bink had found himself holding his breath again as the poison cloud enveloped him. He saw his mother tugging at his father's arm, pointing Bink's way. Bianca's talent was replay: she could jump time back five seconds in a small area. This was very limited but deviously powerful magic, for it enabled her to correct a just-made mistake. Such as Bink's breath of poison gas.

Then his breath had whooshed out again, making Bianca's magic useless. She could keep replaying the scene indefinitely, but everything was replayed, including his breath. But Roland looked, piercingly-and Bink had frozen.

Roland's talent was the stun gaze: one special glance and what he looked at was frozen in place, alive but immobile until released. In this manner Bink had been prevented from breathing the gas a second time, until his rigid body had been carried out.

As the stun abated, he had found himself in his mother's arms. "Oh my baby!" she cried, cradling his head against her bosom. "Did they hurt you?"

Bink came to an abrupt stop by the bed of sponge, his face flushing even now with the keen embarrassment of the memory. Had she had to do that? Certainly she had saved him from an early death-but he had been the laughingstock of the village for an interminable time thereafter. Everywhere he went, kids exclaimed "My baby!" in falsetto, and sniggered. He had his life-at the expense of his pride. Yet he knew he could not blame his parents.

He had blamed Jama and Zink and Potipher. Bink had no magic, but, perhaps for that reason, he was the huskiest boy in the village. He had had to fight as long as he could remember. He was not especially well coordinated, but he had a lot of raw power. He had gone after Jama privately and demonstrated convincingly that the fist was swifter than the magic sword. Then Zink, and finally Potipher; Bink had hurled him into his own gas cloud, forcing him to dissolve it very suddenly. Those three had not sniggered at Bink thereafter; in fact, they tended to avoid him-which was why they had scattered when he charged the tree. Together they could have overcome him: but they had been well conditioned by those separate encounters.

Bink smiled, his embarrassment replaced by grim pleasure. Perhaps his manner of dealing with the situation had been immature, but there had been a lot of satisfaction in it. Down underneath he knew it had been his irritation at his mother that motivated him, displaced to people like Jama-but he did not regret it. He did love his mother, after all.

But in the end his only chance to redeem himself had been to find his own magic talent, a good strong one like that of his father, Roland. So no one would dare to tease him or laugh at him or baby him: ever again. So that pure shame would not drive him from Xanth. And that had never happened. He was known contemptuously as the "Spell-less Wonder."

He stooped to gather several good, strong sponges. These would abate Justin Tree's discomfort, for that was their magic: they absorbed agony and spread a healing comfort. A number of plants and animals-he was not quite sure in which category the sponges fit-had similar properties. The advantage of the sponges was that they were mobile; plucking them would not kill them. They were tough; they had migrated from the water when the corals did, and now thrived on land. Probably their magic healing properties had been developed to facilitate their lives in the new medium. Or maybe before the migration, since coral was cutting stuff.

Talents tended to run in schools, with one overlapping another; thus many variants of each type of magic showed up in the plant and animal kingdoms. But among people, magic varied extremely widely. It seemed that individual personality had more to do with it than heredity, though the strongest magic tended to turn up in particular family lines. As if strength of magic was hereditary, while type of magic was environmental. Yet there were other factors-Bink could fit a lot of reflection into a passing moment. If reflection were magic, he'd be a Magician. But right now he'd better concentrate on what he was doing, or he'd be in trouble.

Dusk was intensifying. Dismal shapes were rising out of the forest, hovering as if seeking prey. Eyeless and formless, they nevertheless conducted themselves with a disquieting awareness, orienting on Bink--or seeming to. More magic was unexplained than was safely catalogued. A will-o'-the-wisp caught Bink's nervous eye. He started to follow the half-glimpsed light, then abruptly caught himself. The lure of the wisp was sheer mischief. It would lead him into the wilderness and lose him there, prey to the hostile magic of the unknown. One of Bink's childhood friends had followed the wisp and never returned. Warning enough!

Night transformed Xanth. Regions like this one that were innocent by day became horrors as the sun sneaked down. Specters and shades came out, questing for their ghastly satisfactions, and occasionally a zombie ripped free of its grave and marched clumsily about. No sensible person slept outdoors, and every house in the village had repulsion spells against the supernatural. Bink did not dare use the shortcut back to Justin Tree; he would have to go the long way, following the looping but magically protected trails. This was not timidity but necessity.

He ran-not from fear, for there was no real danger on this charmed route, and he knew the paths too well to stray accidentally from them, but in order to reach Justin more swiftly. Justin's flesh was wood, but it hurt every bit as much as normal flesh. How anyone could be so crass as to chop at Justin Tree...

Bink passed a field of sea oats, hearing the pleasant swish and gurgle of their oceanic tides. When harvested, they made excellent foamy broth, except that it tended to be rather salty. The bowls could only be filled half-way; otherwise the broth's continuing sea waves slopped over.

He' remembered the wild oats he had planted as an adolescent. Sea oats were restless, but their cousins the wild oats were hyperactive. They had fought him savagely, their stems slashing across his wrists as he tried to harvest a ripe ear. He had gotten it, but had been uncomfortably scratched and abraded before getting clear of the patch.

He had planted those few wild seeds in a secret plot behind his house, and watered them every day, the natural way. He had guarded the bad-tempered shoots from all harm, his anticipation growing. What an adventure for a teenaged male! Until his mother, Bianca had discovered the plot. Alas, she had recognized the species instantly.

There had been a prompt family hassle. "How could you?" Bianca demanded, her face flaming. But Roland had labored to suppress his admiring smile. "Sowing wild oats!" he murmured. "The lad's growing up."

"Now, Roland, you know that-"

"Dear, it isn't as if there's any real harm in it."

"No harm!" she exclaimed indignantly.

"It is a perfectly natural urge for a young man-" But her furious expression had halted Bink's father, who feared nothing in Xanth but was normally a peaceable man. Roland sighed and turned to Bink. "I gather you do know what you were doing, son?"

Bink felt excruciatingly defensive. "Well-yes. The nymph of the oats-"

"Bink!" Bianca snapped warningly. He had never seen her so angry before.

Roland held up his hands, making peace. "Dear-why don't you let us work this out, man-to-man? The boy's got a right."

And so Roland had betrayed his own bias; when his man-to-man chat was with Bink, it was with a boy.

Without another word, Bianca had stalked out of the house.

Roland turned to Bink, shaking his head in a gesture that was only nominally negative. Roland was a powerful, handsome man, and he had a special way with gestures. "Genuine wild oats, culled thrashing from the stem, sown by the full moon, watered with your own urine?" he inquired frankly, and Bink nodded, his face at half heat. "So that when the plants mature, and the oat nymph manifests, she will be bound to you, the fertilizer figure?"

Bink nodded grimly.

"Son, believe me, I comprehend the attraction; I sowed wild oats myself when I was your age. Got me a nymph, too, with flowing green hair and a body like the great outdoors-but I had forgotten about the special watering, and so she escaped me. I never saw anything so lovely in my life-except your mother, of course."

Roland had sown wild oats? Bink had never imagined such a thing. He remained silent, afraid of what was coming.

"I made the mistake of confessing about the oats to Bianca," Roland continued. "I fear she became somewhat sensitized on the subject, and you caught the brunt. These things happen."

So his mother was jealous of something that had happened in his father's life before he married her. What a pitful of concepts Bink had stumbled into, unwittingly.

Roland's face became serious, "To a young man, inexperienced, the notion of a lovely, nude, captive nymph may be phenomenally tempting," he continued. "All the physical attributes of a real woman, and none of the mental ones. But, son, this is a juvenile dream; like finding a candy tree. The reality really would not be all you anticipated. One quickly becomes surfeited, tired of unlimited candy, and so it also is with-with a mindless female body. A man can not love a nymph. She might as well be air. His ardor rapidly turns to boredom, and to disgust."

Still Bink dared not comment. He would not have become bored, he was sure.

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