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Jon-Tom the spellsinger and his friends venture into the high mountains to free a cosmic creature whose captivity threatens to drive the whole world madIt’s an ordinary day in the Bellwoods, save for the fact that Jon-Tom the spellsinger has awoken as a six-foot blue crab. He soon reverts to normal—as normal as a college student trapped in a world of magic and talking animals can be, anyway—but the bizarre changes keep happening, affecting not just him but the whole of this strange world. His wizardly mentor ...
Jon-Tom the spellsinger and his friends venture into the high mountains to free a cosmic creature whose captivity threatens to drive the whole world madIt’s an ordinary day in the Bellwoods, save for the fact that Jon-Tom the spellsinger has awoken as a six-foot blue crab. He soon reverts to normal—as normal as a college student trapped in a world of magic and talking animals can be, anyway—but the bizarre changes keep happening, affecting not just him but the whole of this strange world. His wizardly mentor suspects these are the effects of the perambulator, a cosmic being whose presence distorts reality. One has been imprisoned in the mountains, and unless they free it, it will rip the world to shreds one insane illusion at a time. So Jon-Tom sets out, backed by the wizard, a boozehound owl, a gutter-minded otter, and a warrior koala with a taste for leather. Saving the world will be a cinch, as long as they don’t lose their minds along the way.
FOR ONCE ALL SEEMED right with the world, even if the world in question happened to be the one to which he had been unwillingly transported, Jon-Tom reflected with a resigned sigh. It was a perfectly gorgeous autumn morning. Bright sunshine warmed his face, his stomach was giving him no trouble, and there was a delicious bite to the air.
Not only did all seem right with the world, he was also feeling especially good about himself. His studies had progressed to the point where even the wizard Clothahump was willing to concede, albeit reluctantly, that with continued practice and attention to detail Jon-Tom might actually be worthy of the sobriquet of Spellsinger. The wizard had been in a particularly good mood lately. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that his apprentice, the owl Sorbl, had sworn off liquor after coming out of a three-day drunk. While he was lying unconscious on the floor of a tavern, the owl's drinking buddies had amused themselves by pulling out most of his tail feathers. The result left the apprentice sufficiently mortified to embark on a return to the long-forgotten state known as sobriety, of which he had not been an inhabitant for some time.
Even the wizard's bowels were behaving, for which Jon-Tom was equally grateful. There is no more pitiful sight than a turtle with the trots.
There was only one problem. His fine morning mood notwithstanding, Jon-Tom couldn't shake a vague feeling of unease. It wasn't anything specific, nothing he could put a claw on, but it had been nagging at him most of the morning. It was unconscionable for something so intangible to spoil his mood.
Nothing like a good breakfast to banish lingering sensations of discontent, he mused as he bent over his tray. But though the annelids were fresh and the dried anemone crunchy and well seasoned, the food failed to alleviate his discomfort.
He turned toward the single window that let light into the cave, his eyestalks twisting for a better view. Beyond and below, the waves smashed energetically against the sheer granite cliff. The damp air of his cavern was perfumed with the sharp smell of salt and seawater. Dried algae and kelp decorated the floor and walls.
Both suns were already high in the sky. The largest gleamed deep purple through the clouds, while its smaller companion shed its normal pale green light on the coastline. The purple clouds reflected his mood but were not responsible for it.
Turning away from the feeding tray, he used a lesser claw to wipe edible tidbits into his mouth. The tension caused his eyestalks to clench, and he made a deliberate effort to relax.
Nerves, he told himself firmly. Nothing but nerves. Except that he had no reason to be nervous. If all was right with the world, what was there to be nervous about? He sighed deeply, shook himself, preened his eyestalks. Nothing helped. Something, somewhere, was seriously wrong.
A hiss behind him made him shift from contemplation of his continued unease to the passageway that led out of his cave. The hiss was followed by a rasping noise and a formal greeting. Moving lithely on six chitinous legs, Clothahump shuffled into the chamber. As befitted his age, his shell was twice the diameter of Jon-Tom's, though Jon-Tom was more intimidated by the wizard's intellect than by his size.
His mentor's eyes bobbed and danced on the ends of foot-long stalks that, like Jon-Tom's, were a pale turquoise blue. Upon entering sideways, the wizard assumed a stance next to the window where he could inhale the full rush of salt-stained air. Settling his legs beneath him, he gestured with his primary claw.
"A question for you, my boy. How are you feeling this morning? Anything troubling you? Headache, nausea perhaps?"
"Nothing." Jon-Tom's eyestalks dipped and bobbed eloquently. "I feel great. It's a beautiful day." He hesitated. "Except ..."
"Except what?" the wizard prompted him.
"Nothing, really. It's only that since I woke up this morning, well—it's hard to define. I don't feel a hundred percent, and I should. There's something, a funny feeling of—I don't know. I just don't feel right."
"You feel that something is not as it should be, but you are unable to define what it is?"
"Yes, exactly! You've been feeling the same thing?"
"Yes, indeed. I believe it woke me up."
Jon-Tom nodded excitedly. "Me too. But I can't pin it down."
"Really? I should think you would have been able to by this time."
Before Jon-Tom could respond, a three-foot-long centipede wandered into the chamber. It peered mournfully up at Clothahump before glancing over at Jon-Tom. He recognized the famulus immediately.
"Sorbl. You've been drinking again. I thought you'd sworn off the stuff."
"Sorry." The centipede staggered toward the depression in the middle of the chamber. "But when I got a look at myself in the mirror this morning, well, you can imagine."
"I can? Imagine what?"
The centipede returned its sorrowful stare to its master. "Hasn't he figured it out yet?"
"Figured what out yet?"
"You don't notice anything unusual?" the famulus asked in disbelief.
"Unusual? No, I don't ..." And then it hit him as sharply as if he'd stuck his finger in an electric socket. That was his problem: he wasn't noticing. Noticing, for example, what was wrong with the wizard's assistant. Sorbl was an owl, approximately three feet in height, with wings to match and vast yellow eyes, usually bloodshot. What he was not was a three-foot-long centipede.
"Holy shit, Sorbl—what happened to you?"
The centipede gaped at him. "What happened to me? How about what's happened to you? Or haven't you taken a look at yourself yet this morning?"
Not possessing the right equipment for frowning, Jon-Tom settled for clicking his lesser claw several times to indicate the extent of his confusion. Then he took the time to inspect himself.
Nothing out of the ordinary. Everything was in its proper place. His six legs were folded neatly beneath him, his primary and lesser claws held out in front. His eyestalks enabled him to study every part of his body. Oh, his palps were still a mite grungy from breakfast, and his shell could use a cleaning, but other than that, everything appeared to be in good working order.
"You still don't know what's wrong, do you?" Clothahump sounded more curious than accusatory.
"No, I don't." Jon-Tom was growing irritated by the repeated question. "I don't know what happened to transform Sorbl, but I can't be expected to ..."
Transform. The word meant something important in the context of this morning's unease. Change. Alter. Different.
Something went click inside his head. It was as if his eyes were lenses in a camera belonging to another individual entirely and that individual had just released the shutter.
He took another look at himself; a good look, a long look. Then he started to tremble, which is not easy to do when one is mounted on six legs and is sitting down besides. The internal vibrations were impressive. Nausea? Clothahump had inquired about it upon entering. He was in the process of having his question fulfilled.
Wishing for a sudden onset of blindness, Jon-Tom stared around the chamber. Sorbl was not all that had been transformed. For openers, the wizard Clothahump did not live in a rocky, moisture-drenched cave that looked out over an ocean. He lived in a giant oak tree whose interior had been dimensionally enlarged by one of the sorcerer's spells. The oak grew in the middle of a forest called the Bellwoods, not by the shore of some unknown sea that foamed red instead of white against the rocks.
There was also the matter of the sun's absence and its replacement by two unhealthy-looking orbs of green and purple. Clothahump himself was a turtle many hundreds of years old, not an arthropod of unknown origin. For that matter, he himself, Jon-Tom, née Jonathan Thomas Meriweather, was a young man six feet two inches tall, a bit on the slim side, with shoulder-length brown hair and a thoughtful expression. He looked weakly down at himself for a second time. Nothing had changed since this revelation had struck him.
He was still a giant blue crab.
"You would think, my boy," declared Clothahump in that sometimes maddeningly condescending tone of his, "that you would have noticed the change before this, but I suppose readjustment takes more time when it occurs immediately upon awakening."
"Readjustment?" He was very near panicking. "What the hell's going on? What's happened to you? What happened to Sorbl? What ..." He started to gesture with a claw, and as soon as he saw it hovering in front of him, he quickly drew it back against his body as if the very movement might make it disappear. "What's happened to everything ?"
"Well, my boy." The wizard spoke while nonchalantly preening one eyestalk with his secondary claw, acting as though it were a task he performed regularly every morning. "It would appear that we are confronted by a problem of grave dimensions."
"Oh, no," Jon-Tom moaned. At least, he thought he moaned. It emerged as a kind of sibilant hiss. "Why must it always be a problem of grave dimensions? Can't we ever be confronted by a problem of lighthearted dimensions? A problem of mild dimensions? A problem requiring only simple, straightforward solutions?"
"You are becoming hysterical, my boy."
"I am not becoming hysterical," Jon-Tom snapped. "Sarcastic and mad and maybe a little crazy, but not hysterical."
At that moment the enormous blue crab, which had been listening patiently to him, vanished. So did the algae- and kelp-strewn wall of the cave, and the roar of the ocean outside, and the thick tangy odor of salt spray. The purple and green light that had illuminated the chamber was replaced with a warm, indistinct transparency. Clothahump the wizard, the real Clothahump, was sitting facing him on a stool not six feet away and regarding his young guest calmly.
Behind the wizard was the soft blond-brown wood that formed the interior walls of the great tree. The cave, too, had gone, to be replaced by the familiar surroundings of his own room. There was his bed, there his desk and chair, over in the corner the simple washbasin and spigots. Rising on shaky legs, he crossed to the basin, turned the cold water tap on full, and splashed it freely over his face and arms. As he dried himself he felt with relief the soft smooth skin that covered his arms. The hard chitinous shell was gone. He touched his head, felt the recently washed shoulder-length hair.
I am me again, he thought with exquisite relief.
The world was normal once more. Or was it? What of the problem the wizard had alluded to? Jon-Tom knew that the turtle did not refer to such matters lightly, and he'd already been subjected to an intimate illustration of the seriousness of the problem.
Well, no matter. They would handle it, as they had handled such matters before. Clothahump would know how to cope, what to do. Oh, he would moan and groan and gripe about the loss of his precious time, but he would take care of things, and Jon-Tom, as always, would learn from the experience. Surely any sorcerer who could conceive a strategy for defeating the Plated Folk at the Jo-Troom Gate and who could provide hot and cold running water in the heart of an oak tree could cope with this small matter of waking up in another world in the body of a giant blue crab?
Only—what if it happened again?
With some amazement he saw that his hands were trembling.
"Hey," he said, trying to sound cool and failing because his voice was also shaking, "look at my hands. How about that? Maybe I am a little hysterical."
Clothahump responded with a disapproving clucking sound, though his expression was full of sympathy. "Delayed reaction." He reached into one of the drawers built into his plastron, spent a moment searching, and removed a small foil packet. He tossed the contents into the air while reciting a spell new to Jon-Tom.
"Suffer the shakes to cease and desist,
Soothe the disquiet and stir.
The neural pathways now should consist
Of quiet not unlike a cat's purr
Come forth endorphins and valium!"
Immediately a feeling of great contentment and well-being spread through Jon-Tom's entire body. The relief was so sudden and complete that he didn't mind the fact he could no longer stand erect. Sorbl caught him just in time, helped him over to his bed.
"I may have overdone it a bit," Clothahump muttered.
"No, no, I feel fine," Jon-Tom assured him. "Just—fi-ine."
The wizard was nodding to himself. "Definitely overdid it. You are enjoying yourself too much." And he made some signs in the air while Jon-Tom struggled to protest.
His head cleared and his hands remained steady. He tried not to show his disappointment.
"Uh, what was that stuff, sir?"
The turtle wagged a warning finger at him. "This is no time for pharmacological experimentation, my boy. You are not mature enough to utilize such spells in proper moderation. Your head needs to be clear, and what brain you have to be functioning optimally. Or have you forgotten already what I just told you?"
"Yeah, yeah." Unable to conceal his boredom, he sat up on the bed, put his hands on his knees. "Another serious problem. Big deal."
Clothahump eyed him carefully. "I definitely should have used a less powerful spell. Well, any remaining aftereffects will wear off quickly enough."
"Too bad," Jon-Tom muttered. "Look, I've heard it all before, sir. But I just can't get excited anymore. Especially since you're obviously capable of handling this particular problem."
"Is that so?" Clothahump peered at him through six-sided glasses. "What makes you think I will be able to handle it?"
"You already have." Jon-Tom blandly waved a hand at his room. "You put everything right again. I mean, I'm myself again, and you're you, and the world is what it ought to be. Everything is as it should be."
"Indeed that is so," the wizard conceded, "except that I am distressed to admit that none of it was my doing."
Jon-Tom blinked at him. "You mean you didn't bring things back to normal?"
"Absolutely not, my boy, any more than I bent them askew in the first place."
"Then," Jon-Tom said, much more slowly, "it could happen again? I could turn back into a giant blue crab?"
"Oh, yes, most certainly. At any moment. And myself also, just as Sorbl could turn back into that crawly thing he was, and this comfortable tree back into a damp cave, and—"
"All right, all right." The thought of returning to that skittering crablike shape, smelling of alienness and sea-stink, was enough to shock Jon-Tom out of his boredom. "But I don't understand. Things like that don't just 'happen.' "
"Ah, but we have indisputable evidence that it did, my boy. Furthermore, should it happen again, the effects could be quite different."
"What do you mean 'different'?" Jon-Tom asked uneasily, inspecting his room as though signs and portents of any impending change might be lying there on his chair or hanging from his clothes rack next to his extra shirt.
"I mean that next time the world might become less recognizable still. At any moment, without warning of any kind."
Jon-Tom considered this. "It wasn't an illusion, then? I actually changed. You and Sorbl actually changed."
"Quite so. The entire world was transformed. You did not imagine that you were a large blue crab. You became a large blue crab."
"I wasn't sure. I thought that maybe—" He broke off.
"Maybe what, my boy?"
Jon-Tom found it difficult to meet the wizard's gaze. "That you were playing some kind of elaborate joke. You're always testing me."
"A not unreasonable assumption on your part, save for the fact that I never engage in anything as juvenile as practical jokes. This was no test. I wish it were so."
Jon-Tom nodded thoughtfully, then reached for the duar, which was hanging by its shoulder strap from one of his bed's corner posts. He slipped the strap over his shoulder, cradled the instrument against his ribs.
Now it was the wizard's turn to look discomforted. "What are you going to do with that, my boy?" While Jon-Tom's control over his spellsinging had improved dramatically under the turtle's tutelage, it was still far from precise. His ability to evoke marvelous things with his music was still matched only by his inability to control them.
"I'm just holding it," Jon-Tom replied irritably. Did Clothahump still regard him as nothing more than an amateur? "Do you think that after all my practicing I still don't know what I'm doing?"
"I could not have put it better myself."
Jon-Tom was ready with a sharp retort, but he never voiced it. He was too busy staring at the little finger of his left hand. It had grown six inches and turned into a bobbing, weaving worm. It curled back over his palm and glared up at him out of tiny glittering gold eyes.
As quickly as it had appeared, it vanished. He wiggled the small finger again, swallowed.
Excerpted from The Paths of the Perambulator by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 1985 Thranx, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 26, 2011
I have read the entire Spellsinger series as they came out starting in the mid 1980's. I am so glad to see them on ebook! I downloaded them all! Paths of the Perambulator is a laugh out loud adventure, so don't read in a quiet place! Start with book one, The Spellsinger, if you are new to this series, so you get an in-depth view of the main characters. You won't stop there or you have no fun in your life!
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