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By Alan Dean Foster
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Alan Dean Foster
All rights reserved.
SIZE AND ATTIRE ALONE would have made the giant otter worthy of notice, even if he hadn't tripped over Meriweather's feet. Sprawled whiskers down in the grass, the creature was barely a foot shorter than the lanky youth's own six feet two.
It was by far the largest otter Jon Meriweather had ever seen. Although he was a student of history and not zoology, he was still willing to bet that five and a half feet was somewhat more than otters normally reached. Despite the haze still fogging his brain, he was also fairly certain that they didn't run around in green felt peaked hats, snakeskin vests, or maroon velveteen pants puffed at the ankles. Very deliberately, Jon rose, regarded the stub of the joint he held tightly in his right hand, and flicked it distastefully away. The problem of the moment was not the existence of the utterly impossible otter, but of what his friend Shelly had cut the weed with.
Nevertheless, Jon couldn't take his eyes off the creature as it rolled over onto its rump. The velveteen pantaloons impressed on him a fact he'd never had much reason to consider before: otters have very low waistlines.
This one tugged its feathered cap down firmly over cookie-shaped ears and commenced gathering up the arrows that had spilled from the quiver slung across his back. The task was complicated by the short sword and scabbard strapped across his chest, which kept getting in the way whenever he bent over. An occasional murderous stare directed toward Jon gave him the feeling that the animal would enjoy putting one of the foot-long shafts into him.
That was no reason for concern. He swayed and relished the hallucination. Cannabis had never generated hallucinations in him before, but there was always a first time. What had Shelly been cutting their stash with?
Proof that it was cut with something powerful was stumbling about the grass before him, muttering under its breath and gathering arrows.
Doubtless his overtaxed brain was suffering from the long hours of study he'd been putting in lately, coupled with his working from nine at night until three in the morning. The work was necessary. Finals were due in seven weeks, and then presentation of his master's thesis. He savored the title once more: Manifestations and prefiguring of democratic government in the Americas, as exemplified by the noble-sun king relationships of the Inca, 1248-1350. It was a great title, he felt, and in presenting a thesis a good title was half the fight. No matter how brilliant the research or the writing, you were doomed without a title.
Having placed the last arrow in its quiver, the otter was carefully sliding it around to his back. This done, he gazed across the meadow. His sharp black eyes took in every tree and bush. Eventually the alert gaze came around to rest on the dreamy figure of Jon Meriweather.
Since the vision appeared to be waiting for some sort of comment, the good-natured graduate student said, "What can I do for you, offspring of my nighttime daydreaming?"
By way of reply the animal again directed its attention across the meadow, searched briefly, then pointed to a far copse. Jon lazily followed the otter's gesture.
Disappearing beneath a mossy boulder the size and shape of a demolished Volkswagen was a bright yellow lizard slightly larger than a chicken. It darted along on its hind legs, the long whiplike tail extended out behind for balance. Once it stared back over its shoulder, revealing a double row of pink dots running down its throat and chest. Then it was gone into the safety of its burrow.
Reality began to rear its ugly head. Jon was slowly taking note of his surroundings. His bed and room, the rows of books on concrete-block-supported shelves, the pinups, the battered TV, had been replaced by an encircling forest of oaks, sycamores, birch, and pine. Tuliplike flowers gleamed nearby, rising above thick grass and clover, some of which was blue. A faint tinkling, as of temple bells, sounded from the distant trees.
Jon held both hands to his head. Lucidity continued to flee laughingly just ahead of his thoughts. He remembered a pain, a pulling that threatened to tear his brain out of his skull. Then he'd been drifting, a different drift from the usual relaxing stupor that enveloped him during an evening of hard study and heavy smoking. His head throbbed.
"Well?" asked the otter unexpectedly, in a high-pitched but not really squeaky voice.
"Well what?" Soon, he told himself frantically, soon I'll wake up and find myself asleep on the bed, with the rest of the Mexia History of All the Roman Emperors still to be finished. Not hash, he thought. Something stronger. God, my head.
"You asked what you could do for me." The otter gestured again, a quick, rapid movement in the general direction of the boulder at the edge of the woods. "As your damned great foot caused me t' fall and lose the granbit, you can bloody well go and dig it out for me."
"What for? Were you going to eat it?"
"Nay." The otter's tone was bitterly sarcastic. "I were goin' t' tie the bloody two-legs 'round me neck and wear it as a bloody pendant, I was." His whiskers quivered with his rage. "Try t' play the smartyarse with me, will you? I suppose you be thinkin' your size will protect you?"
Casually adjusting his bow across his back and chest, the animal drew his short sword and approached Jon, who did not back away. How could he, being deep asleep?
"I know what happens now." He shifted his feet, almost fell. "You'll kill me, and I'll wake up. It's about time. I've got a whole damn book to finish."
"Be you daft!" The otter's head cocked nervously to one side and a furry paw scratched a cheek. "'Cor, I believe you are." He looked around warily. "I know not what influences are bein' brought t' bear in this place, but it's cost me a granbit. I'm for leavin'. Will you not at least apologize?"
"You mean for tripping you?" Jon considered. "I didn't do a damn thing. I'm asleep, remember?"
"You're a damn sight worse than asleep, man. The granbit choke you and make you throw up your bowels, if you be lucky enough t' catch it. I'm finished with it, if it means encounterin' the likes o' you. And if you follow me, I'll slit you from mouth to arse and hasten the process. Keep your damned apology then, and take this parting gift in return."
So saying, he jabbed the dream sword at Jon. It sliced his shirt and knicked his left side just above the belt holding up his jeans. A blinding pain exploded in his side, dampened only slightly by the lingering effects of the evening's smoking. His mouth opened to form a small "O" of surprise. Both hands went to his ribs.
The otter withdrew his sword, the tip now stained red, and slipped it back in its scabbard after cleaning it with tall grass. He turned and started away, muttering obscenities. Jon watched it waddle off across the grass, heading toward the trees.
The pain in his side intensified. Red stained his blue T-shirt. A warm wetness trickled cloyingly down inside his underwear and started down the left leg of his jeans. Superficial wounds bleed way out of proportion to their seriousness, he told himself. But it hurts, he thought despairingly.
I hope to God I wake up soon.
But if he was asleep ... the pain was too real, far more so than trees or otter. Blood staining the grass, he limped after his assailant.
"Wait a minute ... please, wait!" The words were thick in his dry throat, and he was ravenously hungry. Holding his wounded side with his left hand and waving his right, he stumbled after the otter. Clover broke fragrantly under his sandals and small flying things erupted in panic from the grass under his feet, to conceal themselves quickly in other pockets of protective green.
Bright sunlight filled the meadow. Birds sang strange songs. Butterflies with stained-glass wings crowned the tulips.
Having reached the outer rank of trees the otter hesitated under an umber sycamore and half drew his sword. "I'm not afeared o' you, daemon-man. Come closer and I'll stick you again." But even while he uttered this brave challenge the animal was backing slowly into the woods, looking to left and right for an avenue of escape.
"I don't want to hurt you," Jon whispered, as much from the agony in his side as from a desire not to panic the creature. "I just want to wake up, that's all." Tears started from his eyes. "Please let me wake up. I want to leave this dream and get back to work. I'll never take another toke, honest to God. It hurts."
He looked back over his shoulder, praying for the sight of his dumpy, cramped room with its cracked ceiling and dirty windows. Instead, he saw only more trees, tulip things, glass butterflies. A narrow brook ran where his bed should have been.
Turning back to the otter he took a step forward, tripped over a rock, and fell, weakened by loss of blood. Peppermint and heather smells filled his nostrils.
Please God, don't let me die in a dream....
Details drifted back to him when he reopened his eyes. It was light out. He'd fallen asleep on his bed and slept the whole night, leaving the Mexia unread. And with an eight o'clock class in Brazilian government to attend.
Judging from the intensity of the light, he'd barely have enough time to pull himself together, gather up his books and notes, and make it to campus. And he'd have words with Shelly for not warning him about the unexpected potency of the pot he'd sold him.
And it was odd how his side hurt him.
"Got to get up," he mumbled dizzily.
"'Ere now, guv'nor," said a voice that was not his own, not Shelly's, but was nonetheless familiar. "You take 'er easy for a spell. That was a bad knock you took when you fell."
Jon's eyelids rolled up like cracked plastic blinds. A bristled, furry face framing dancing black eyes stared down at him from beneath the rim of a bright green, peaked cap. Jon's own eyes widened. Details of dream slammed into his thoughts. The animal face moved away.
"Now don't you go tryin' any of your daemonic tricks on me ... if you 'ave any."
"I"—Jon couldn't decide whether to pay attention to the bump on his head or the pain in his side—"I'm not a daemon."
The otter made a satisfied chittering sound. "Ah! Never did think you were. Knew it all along, I did. First off, a daemon wouldn't let hisself be cut as easy as you did and second, they don't fall flat on their puss when they be in pursuit of daemonic prey. Worst attempt at levitation ever I saw.
"Thinkin' I might 'ave misjudged you, for bein' upset over losin' me supper, I bandaged up that little nick I gifted you with. Guess you're naught but a man, what? No hard feelin's, mate?"
Jon looked down at himself. His shirt had been pulled up. A crude dressing of some fibrous material was tied around his waist with a snakeskin thong. A dull ache came from the bandaged region. He felt as though he'd been used as a tackling dummy.
Sitting up very slowly, he again noted his surroundings. He was not in his apartment, a tiny hovel which now seemed as desirable and unattainable as heaven.
Dream trees continued to shade dream flowers. Grass and blue clover formed a springy mattress beneath him. Dream birds sang in the branches overhead, only they were not birds. They had teeth, and scales, and claws on their wings. As he watched, a glass butterfly lit on his knee. It fanned him with sapphire wings, fluttered away when he reached tentatively toward it.
Sinewy muscles tensed beneath his armpits as the otter got behind him and lifted. "You're a big one ... give us a 'and now, will you, mate?"
With the otter's aid, Jon soon found himself standing. He tottered a little, but the fog was lifting from his brain.
"Where's my room? Where's the school?" He turned a circle, was met by trees on all sides and not a hint of a building projecting above them. The tears started again, surprising because Jon had always prided himself on his emotional self-control. But he was badly, almost dangerously disoriented. "Where am I? What ... who are you?"
"All good questions, man." This is a funny bloke, the otter thought. Watch yourself, now. "As to your room and school, I can't guess. As to where we are, that be simple enough to say. These be the Bellwoods, as any fool knows. We're a couple days' walk out o' Lynchbany Towne, and my name be Mudge. What might yours be, sor, if you 'ave a name?"
Jon answered numbly, "Meriweather. Jonathan Thomas Meriweather."
"Well then, Jnthin Tos Miwath ... Joneth Omaz Morwoth ... see 'ere, man, this simply won't do! That's not a proper name. The sayin' of it ud give one time enough to dance twice widdershins 'round the slick thighs o' the smooth-furred Felice, who's said t've teased more males than there be bureaucrats in Polastrindu. I'll call you Jon-Tom, if you don't mind, and if you will insist on havin' more than one name. But I'll not give you three. That clatters indecently on the ears."
"Bellwoods," the lanky, disoriented youth was babbling. "Lynchbany ... Lynchbany ... is that near Culver City? It's got to be in the South Bay somewhere."
The otter put both hands on Jon-Tom's wrists, and squeezed. Hard. "Look 'ere, lad," he said solemnly, "I know not whether you be balmy or bewitched, but you'd best get hold of yourself. I've not the time t' solve your problems or wipe away those baby-bottom tears you're spillin'. You're as real as you feel, as real as I, and if you don't start lookin' up for yourself you'll be a real corpse, with real maggots feedin' on you who won't give a snake fart for where you hailed from. You hearin' me, lad?"
Jon-Tom stopped snuffling, suddenly seemed his proper age. Easy, he told himself. Take this at face value and puzzle it through, whatever it is. Adhere to the internal logic and pray to wake up even if it's in a hospital bed. Whether this animal before you is real or dream, it's all you've got now. No need to make even an imaginary asshole of yourself.
"That's better." The otter let loose of the man's tingling wrists. "You mumble names I ain't never heard o'." Suddenly he slapped small paws together, gave a delighted spring into the air. "O' course! Bugger me for a rat-headed fool for not thinkin' of it afore! This 'as t' be Clothahump's work. The old sot's been meddlin' with the forces of nature again." His attitude was instantly sympathetic, whiskers quivering as he nodded knowingly at the gaping Jon-Tom.
"'Tis all clear enough now, you poor blighter. It's no wonder you're as puzzled and dazed as you appear, and that I couldn't fathom you a'tall." He kicked at the dirt, boot sending flowers flying. "You've been magicked here."
"Aye! Oh, don't look like that, guv'nor. I don't expect it's fatal. Old Clothahump's a decent docent and wily enough wizard when he's sober and sane, but the troublemaker o' the ages when he lapses into senility, as 'e's wont t' do these days. Sometimes it's 'ard to tell when 'e's rightside in. Not that it be 'is fault for turnin' old and dotty, 'appens t' us all eventually, I expect.
"I stay away from 'is place, I do. As do any folk with brains enough. Never know what kind o' crazed incantation you might get sucked up in."
"He's a wizard, then," Jon-Tom mumbled. Trees, grass, the otter before him assumed the clarity of a fire alarm. "It's all real, then."
"I told you so. There be nothin' wrong with your ears, lad. No need t' repeat what I've already said. You sound dumb enough as it is."
"Dumb? Now look," Jon-Tom said with some heat, "I am confused. I am worried. I'll confess to being terrified out of my wits." One hand dropped reflexively to his injured side. "But I'm not dumb."
The otter sniffed disdainfully.
"Do you know who was president of Paraguay from 1936 to 1941?"
"No." Mudge's nose wiggled. "Do you know 'ow many pins can dance on the 'ead of an angel?"
"No, and"—Jon-Tom hesitated; his gaze narrowed—"it's 'how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.'"
Mudge let out a disgusted whistle. "Think we're smart, do we. I can't do fire, but I'm not even an apprentice and I can pindance."
His paw drew five small, silvery pins from a vest pocket. Each was about a quarter of an inch long. The otter mumbled something indistinct and made a pass or two over the metal splinters. The pins rose and commenced a very respectable cakewalk in his open palm.
"Allemande left," the otter commanded. The pins complied, the odd one out having some trouble working itself into the pattern of the dance.
"Never can get that fifth pin right. If only we 'ad the 'ead o' an angel."
"That's very interesting," Jon-Tom observed quietly. Then he fainted....
"You keep that up, guv, and the back o' your nog's goin' to be as rough as the hills of Kilkapny Claw. Not t' mention what it's doin' t' your fur."
Excerpted from Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 1983 Alan Dean Foster. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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