“What’s that?” Picka Bone asked, startled. His bone head was hollow, but this was normal for a walking skeleton, and he could see, hear, and think well enough. Magical creatures were not handicapped in the manner of mortal ones; they were not subject to the ills of flesh. As it happened, they were just completing their hourly tour of the cemetery they were patrolling.
“It’s a living cat,” his sister Joy’nt said. She was his age, twenty-four, with nice bones. “With a bird sitting on his head.”
“That’s what I thought it was. Don’t live cats normally eat live birds?”
“Normally,” Joy’nt agreed. “There may be an interesting story here.”
“And we could use some interest in our dull routine.” For that was a liability of their state: terminal dullness. Without the fear of pain or death, they seldom got exited. Intellectual interest was about all that sustained them, and they were not great intellects.
The cat was coming directly toward them. It was a nondescript male with blond fur, evidently mundane. The little bird was flapping its wings but not flying, as if trying to get their attention. It was a male parakeet with brownish feathers, another mundane creature. They halted right before the skeletons.
Joy’nt had a soft spot for animals, figuratively, as none of her was physically soft. She squatted and extended her bone hand to the cat to sniff. “What can we do for you, strange feline?” she inquired.
The cat scratched in the sand, smoothing it. Then he stroked a claw across it several times, forming some kind of pattern. In fact it was alphabetical letters.
“H-E-L-P,” Picka read.
“Help?” Joy’nt asked. “How?”
The cat turned and went back the way he had come. The bird, still riding his head, cheeped and flipped one wing, as if encouraging them to follow.
“Got it,” Picka said. “Show us where.”
They walked through the graveyard, past the F and G gravestones that were shaped like the letters F and G to represent Effie and Gee, who had been hanged in effigy. Past the stone saying FOR PETE’S SAKE! in honor of a man who hadn’t planned on dying. There were all manner of mildly amusing stones here. Picka and Joy’nt had wandered though the graveyard repeatedly, and each time discovered something they had missed before.
The cat and bird led them to a collapsed crypt they had not noticed; it was one of several rather old and worn structures scattered through the graveyard. This one had been open and empty, of no concern. The stone slab that formed the roof of the front portal had dropped down, sealing it off.
“In there?” Joy’nt asked.
The bird nodded. It was evident that these animals understood human speech, but could not speak it. Many animals were like that.
Now they heard a faint “Woof!” Something was in there!
Picka braced himself, got his bone fingers on the stone, and heaved it up and to the side. Walking skeletons had no muscles but were stronger than they looked, being magically animated. The portal was open.
A big dark mongrel mundane dog came out, tail wagging, glad to be freed. He joined the other two. The three were evidently friends, odd as such an association might be.
“You wanted to rescue a dog?” Picka asked the cat, surprised again.
“I think we deserve an explanation,” Joy’nt said.
The three animals just looked at her. Maybe they were having trouble with the idea of an explanation, when they couldn’t speak human.
“Let’s trade,” Picka said. “We’ll tell you about us if you tell us about you.”
The bird, cat, and dog exchanged glances. Then the bird nodded.
“First we need a better way to communicate,” Joy’nt said. “I know just the thing.” She fished in her hollow skull and brought out a roll of bone-colored paper. She spread this on the ground. “This is a magic marker made from dragon bone,” she explained. “I got it from a man I met named Cody, who could decipher any code or language. It works only for living creatures, so I never had use for it before. Whoever wants to talk can put a hand, claw, or paw on it, focus, and it will print your thought. Try it.”
The cat touched the paper with a paw. Words formed. I AM MIDRANGE CAT.
The dog tried it. I AM WOOFER DOG.
Finally the bird flew down and landed on it with both feet. II AAMM TTWWEEEETTEERR BBIIRRDD.
Midrange made a mewl of impatience. He touched the paper. JUST ONE FOOT, BIRDBRAIN!
Tweeter hauled up a foot. OOPS.
Woofer touched the marker. HA HA HA!
Joy’nt glanced at Picka. She had no eyes, of course, but her squared-off eyeholes could be expressive. “Now give our history, briefly.”
“I am Picka Bone, son of Marrow Bones and Grace’l Ossein,” Picka said. “This is my sister, Joy’nt. Our kind, the walking skeletons, originated in the dream realm of the gourd, but Esk Ogre found Marrow on the Lost Path and brought him out to Xanth proper. So Marrow and Grace’l are no longer scary dream figures, but regular Xanth denizens. Marrow once accompanied Prince Dolph on an adventure. That was when he met Electra, and later married her, and they got the twin sisters Sorceresses Dawn and Eve. Later Marrow got half a soul, which he shared, so we have eighth souls. So we feel obliged to do some good in Xanth. We have wandered all around, but living humans tend to avoid our company, so we have been unable to do them much good. We agreed to watch this graveyard for a month so the zombies could take a break. This is our last day; we don’t know what we’ll do tomorrow, but hope it isn’t too boring. Our hollow heads get easily bored.” He made a little screwing motion with a bone finger, as if boring into his skull.
Woofer looked blank. Midrange looked disgusted. Tweeter fell over with melodic laughter.
Picka had given them his personal history. Did they really understand any of it? Did they care? How would they respond?
The cat touched the marker. A column of print appeared. Digested, it was this:
“We are three pets brought from Mundania by the Baldwin family fifteen years ago. Our names are Woofer, Tweeter, and Midrange, as specified above. It seems the Baldwins liked music, so they named us after their speakers. We liked our family, but pets don’t live forever in drear Mundania, so when we got old we migrated here, thanks to a dispensation from the Demon Xanth, for whom I once did a favor. Now we are back in our primes of life, but even a magic land can get dull, so we are looking for adventure. Woofer has a nose for that sort of thing, and he led us to this cemetery, and to this crypt. There is something interesting in there. But when Woofer went in, the stone fell down, trapping him. So we came to you to beg for help. You helped us, so we owe you a favor. What favor do you want, that we can do?”
Picka exchanged another eyeless glance with his sister. “We’d like to find something interesting to do tomorrow,” she said.
“So would we,” Midrange spelled out on the marker. “Maybe we all should share a great adventure.”
“Agreed,” Joy’nt said. “What adventure?”
“We hoped you would know,” Midrange printed.
Picka tapped his skull with a knuckle. “Our empty heads are not great on ideas. In fact I’m not great on anything much. Joy’nt has the usual skeleton talent of disassembly and reformulation; she can form her bones into different configurations if she gets a good starting kick in the—” He caught his sister’s warning glare. “Pelvis. But it doesn’t work for me. I’m a defective skeleton. A complete nonentity, even among my own kind, which are not exactly live wires. So I’m not sure I’m even worthy of an adventure. But still I wish I could have one.”
Tweeter flew across and landed on his shoulder bone. “Tweet!” he tweeted sympathetically.
“Thanks,” Picka said. He was beginning to like the little bird.
That reminded Picka. “What were you looking for in the crypt?”
Woofer wagged his tail and trotted back to the crypt. The others followed, Joy’nt lingering only long enough to recover her marker paper. The crypt was a large one, with room for them all. It had attracted the dog, who had the nose for adventure. There had to be something.
But Picka hung back. “We can’t be sure what we’ll find in there,” he said. “Maybe the way that stone fell, sealing Woofer in, was a warning.”
That made the others pause. “Yet it was open,” Joy’nt said. “Whatever was inside could have escaped.”
“Woofer says no,” Picka said. He was coming to understand these animals even without the marker paper.
“There should be a plaque on the entry stone,” Joy’nt said. She looked around. “That must be it, fallen to the side. Maybe an ogre slapped at it in passing.”
Picka went to look down at the flat stone. “Danger: Think Tank,” he read.
“Think what?” Joy’nt asked.
“The stone is weathered,” Picka said, “but that’s what I read. Maybe it’s an old storage tank.”
“Then why bury it in a crypt in a graveyard?”
Picka shrugged with both his clavicles. “Maybe there’s something dangerous in the tank, like a nest of nickelpedes.”
Even the animals dismissed that. Picka’s hollow head sometimes produced empty notions.
Woofer tired of the dialogue. He went into the crypt, sniffing for the tank. The others had no choice but to follow, after making sure nothing else could collapse to trap them inside.
There in the back was a large machine with caterpillar treads and a gun barrel. Picka recognized it from descriptions of bad machines in the dream realm.
“I thought those monsters were imaginary,” Joy’nt murmured, awed. “No wonder they buried it.”
“I understand such things actually exist in Mundania,” Picka said. “Maybe this one escaped, got into Xanth, and someone put it away so it couldn’t tear up our landscape.”
“Well, now we know enough about it,” Joy’nt said. “It is indeed dangerous. We’d better bury it again.”
But Woofer was sniffing the tank. He found something on its back. It looked like an on-off switch.
“Don’t touch that!” Picka cried, alarmed.
Too late. Woofer was already nosing the switch. It changed position with a brisk click.
The tank animated. A muted light came on somewhere inside. There was the sound of a motor running.
“I think we’d better get out of here,” Joy’nt said, alarmed.
They scrambled out. The tank revved up its gears and followed.
“Maybe we should turn it off again,” Picka said. “If we can.”
“I’ll do it,” Joy’nt said. She ran toward the emerging tank.
Its turret turned. Its cannon oriented on her.
“Watch out!” Picka cried.
Joy’nt threw herself to the ground just as the cannon fired. An oddly shaped ball of light zapped toward her, touching the back of her skull as she dropped.
Tweeter flew toward the tank, going for the switch. The cannon oriented on him and fired again. The bulb-shaped ball caught the tip of a wing, and Tweeter spun out of control.
By the time they got reorganized, the tank was crashing out of the graveyard and into the surrounding forest. It was too late to stop it.
They compared notes. Neither Joy’nt nor Tweeter seemed to have been hurt, just disconcerted by the strikes. “Those light balls the tank fired,” Picka said. “They looked like bulbs.” Then he realized what it meant. “For ideas! It’s a think tank. It makes people think of ideas.”
This time Midrange and Woofer exchanged glances. Midrange went to Joy’nt. She brought out the marker and set it down for him.
He touched it with a paw. “What’s your idea, Tweeter?”
Tweeter flew down and put one foot on it. “Picka Bone must have a talent.”
Midrange touched it again. “And yours, Joy’nt?”
“That we should visit Princess Eve, who knows all about anything that isn’t alive, to ask her what Picka’s talent is.”
“They are friends of ours,” Picka agreed. “We knew them as children; they were three years younger than us. But two years ago Princess Eve married the Dwarf Demon Pluto, and became the Mistress of Hades. She may not be in Xanth now.”
“But her twin sister, Dawn, would know,” Joy’nt said. “We can go to Castle Roogna and ask her where Eve is now.”
Picka was intrigued. “Let’s do it. It may not be much of an adventure, but I’d really like to know about my talent, if I have one.”
“We’ll go too,” Midrange printed.
“Of course,” Joy’nt agreed. She was an agreeable person. So was Picka, actually; he was very even-tempered, and could get along with anyone who wasn’t spooked by his appearance.
“Is there anything to eat? We’re hungry.”
“We skeletons don’t need to eat; we’re magical spooks,” Picka said. “There’s not much around the graveyard. Just a few palm trees holding coco-nuts containing hot nut-flavored cocoa, and some mints. Pepper, astonish, fig—”
“We’ll forage for ourselves,” Midrange printed.
* * *
Next morning when the zombies returned they set out as a party of five. Picka knew that all of them were glad to be doing something, even if it wasn’t much. It gave them the illusion of purpose.
The graveyard was off the beaten path—in fact, there wasn’t even an unbeaten path. This did not bother the skeletons or animals, but they were wary, because there were many dangers in backwoods Xanth.
Not that the walking skeletons had much to fear. Dragons tended to leave them alone because they weren’t very edible; even the marrow in their bones was dry and tasteless. Most living creatures spooked at the very sight of them.
The three living animals were protected by an amicability spell put on them by Nimby, the donkey-headed dragon form of the Demon Xanth, so that other creatures meant them no harm. They could still get in trouble on their own, as Woofer had, but that was his own fault.
Still, Xanth could come up with surprises, so they were careful. They made their way toward the nearest enchanted path, not hurrying, because hurrying could attract more attention than they cared for. This was a bit circuitous, because none of them knew exactly where the nearest enchanted path was.
Woofer, always sniffing things ahead, woofed. He was good at woofing. That meant he had found something halfway interesting. They went in that direction.
They came across a standing woman facing away from them. “Hello,” Picka called. It was better that a stranger hear his voice first, so she wouldn’t be as startled by his form.
The woman did not answer or move.
Joy’nt tried. “Hello. Can you tell us where the nearest enchanted path is?”
Still no answer. Then they caught up and saw the woman’s front side. She was a metal statue!
“Woof,” Woofer repeated in an I-told-you-so tone.
They inspected the statue at close range. It was solid iron, a marvelous image of a bare young human woman. Picka was not into bare human women, but did understand that this one was extremely well formed. He reached out to brush a fallen leaf from her conic left breast.
“Eeeee!” she squealed.
Picka fell back, startled. “You’re alive?” he asked.
“I’m animated, like you,” she said. “I’ll thank you not to paw me.”
“I can’t paw you,” he protested. “I have no paws.”
She turned her head with a certain squeakiness. “You make no bones about it,” she agreed.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Joy’nt asked.
“I am the Iron Maiden, a statue animated by an ancient Magician King.”
“He animated a statue?” Picka asked, amazed. “Why?”
“I never was quite clear on that. He simply said I was statuesque. But he was good to me; he had me sleep every night in his bed while he cuddled me. I told him the stork would never deliver to a statue, but he kept trying. I suppose he didn’t want to be unkind to me, so he pretended it didn’t matter. He was a very generous man.”
It occurred to Picka that the old king might not actually have wanted the stork to pay attention, but he decided not to argue the case. “What happened then?”
“Finally he died, and his wife kicked me out and banished me from the castle. I don’t know why she was so mean. I have been wandering in the wilderness ever since. It gets dull, so sometimes I pause and sleep.”
“We wish you well,” he said. “Do you know where the nearest enchanted path is?”
“What’s an enchanted path?”
It occurred to Picka that the Iron Maiden was a bit out of touch, but again he decided to let it be. She might have napped for a long time; there was rust on her joints. “Never mind. Thank you for your time.”
“You are welcome,” she said. “If you happen to encounter any other man who would like someone to share his bed, I have experience.”
“We’ll do that,” Joy’nt said briskly. For some reason she seemed impatient.
“Woofer found a path!” Picka said.
They hurried to catch up to the dog. Sure enough, there was a crazy-looking path. It looped around trees, twisted across fallen logs, and seemed to be aimless. But it was a path, and surely went somewhere, so they decided to follow it.
Yet when Picka tried to put his foot on it, it writhed away from him. He tried again, and it retreated again. Joy’nt tried, and it avoided her also. This was a really odd path!
Then they saw a man walking along the path without difficulty. “How do you do that?” Picka called to him. “We can’t touch the path.”
The man looked at him. “I think I’m getting crazier by the minute,” he remarked. “You look exactly like a walking skeleton.”
“I am a walking skeleton.”
“Now even my hallucinations are talking back. Well, I’ll treat you just as if you are real. This is the Psycho Path. Only crazy folk can use it. You may not be real, but neither are you crazy, so you’re out of luck.”
Now it was making crazy sense. A crazy path for crazy people. No wonder they couldn’t use it. “Thank you,” Picka called as the man wandered away.
It was getting dark. “We’ll never find our way in the night,” Joy’nt complained. “We’d better make camp, and find something for our friends to eat.”
That was right: the animals needed food and rest, even if skeletons didn’t. They located a glade with a blanket tree, and fashioned several blankets into a warm nest. Then they scouted for a pie plant. But when they returned with slices of pizza and quiche, the blankets were gone. The animals hadn’t done it; they were out scouting for water.
There were some drag marks indicating the direction the blankets had gone. Someone had taken them. They went in that direction, and soon discovered a man sleeping on the pile of blankets.
“You took our blankets!” Picka said indignantly.
The man opened an eye. “What?”
“Those are our blankets!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I found these here.”
“You dragged them here. See the drag marks?”
“Maybe someone dragged them here before I came. People are always accusing me of stealing. I don’t know why.”
Again, there was something odd. “Let’s introduce ourselves. I am Picka Bone, and this is my sister Joy’nt.”
“I am Rob.”
Joy’nt angled her head in the way she had when she got an idea. “What is your magic talent, Rob?”
“I have no idea.”
“Could it relate to your name? Rob?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rob repeated. “All I know is neither men nor women seem to like me much. I don’t care about the men, but I’d really like to meet a friendly woman.”
They let him be. Apparently Rob robbed people without knowing it.
Then Picka got an idea. “The Iron Maiden has nothing to lose,” he murmured. “She’s bare.”
“And lonely,” Joy’nt agreed. She faced Rob. “Follow that crazy path,” she said. “I’m sure you can use it. It will lead you to a lovely maiden in need of company.”
“That sounds great,” Rob agreed. He got off the pile of blankets and went to the nearest twist of the path. He stepped on it. Sure enough, it worked for him. Soon he was walking purposefully toward the spot where they had left the Maiden.
“I think we just did a couple of lonely people a good deed,” Picka said.
“And we got our blankets back,” she agreed.
They hauled their blankets back to the original spot. Then Joy’nt dislocated her bones and formed them into a roughly block-shaped framework. Picka heaved the largest blanket over the top, forming a tent. Joy’nt caught hold of the edges with her fingers and pulled them taut. Picka folded the other blankets and placed them on the ground inside the tent. It was ready.
The three animals returned, their foraging finished. They paused at the sight of the tent.
“The tent is for you,” Picka said. “So you can sleep comfortably for the night. Joy’nt made the framework and I put the blankets on. We thought you’d prefer a bit of shelter, after being out in the forest so long. It’s safe; we skeletons don’t sleep, so I’ll be keeping watch for any mischief.”
Surprised, the three checked it. Then Woofer and Midrange settled down beside each other on the blankets, and Tweeter perched comfortably on Joy’nt’s skull. “Tweet!” he tweeted appreciatively.
Darkness closed in. Picka could see well enough without light, as most nightmare spooks could. He and his sister were not in the bad-dream business, despite their ancestry, but their nature remained.
In fact being a walking skeleton was a rather lonely business. There were no others of their kind in Xanth proper, as far as they knew, apart from their parents, which meant that he and Joy’nt were doomed to remain single and have no families. They hated that, but had no choice. They were technically monsters, not wanted around living folk. They made do, but at quiet times like this Picka had occasion to be bothered by it, and he knew Joy’nt felt much the same.
He heard a rumble. It was from the sky. He knew what that meant: Cumulo Fracto Nimbus, Xanth’s meanest cloud, had somehow spied the tent and intended to ruin it with a good soaking.
Picka scrambled into motion. He had seen a tarpaulin tree near the blanket tree. He ran to it, harvested a waterproof tarp, and ran back to fling it over the tent. “Better get under cover,” he warned Tweeter. The bird quickly fluttered down into the tent.
Fracto arrived and was furious at being balked. He loosed a drenchpour that instantly wet the tent and formed a puddle around it. Picka hastily fetched a stick and dug a trench around and away from the tent so that the water could not swamp it. They had pitched the tent on a small rise, so that helped. Fracto sent fierce gusts of wind, but Joy’nt kept firm hold on the edges of the tarp.
Fracto raged, but couldn’t take out the tent. Finally he stormed off, defeated.
In the morning the three pets emerged, dry and rested. Picka pulled off tarp and blanket, and Joy’nt disjointed and reformed in her normal shape.
Tweeter flew to her shoulder and tweeted. She brought out the marker, and Tweeter touched it. “We are getting to like you.”
“We like you too,” she said.
They gave the animals time to forage and take care of whatever natural functions were necessary for living forms. Then they set off again. This time they came across an enchanted path. That made the rest of their journey easy.
They encountered a man walking the opposite way. He was juggling three balls of light. They paused to watch.
After a moment he noticed. The light balls vanished. “Are my eyes deceiving me, or are you walking skeletons?” he inquired. “We don’t see many like you on the enchanted path, but I know you don’t mean any harm.”
“We are skeletons,” Picka agreed. “I am Picka Bone, and this is my sister Joy’nt. Plus Woofer, Midrange, and Tweeter. We are going to Castle Roogna.”
“It’s not far,” the man agreed. “I am Aaron. My talent is to make balls of light.” He smiled. “They are easy to juggle, because they weigh very little.”
“We noticed,” Joy’nt said.
“Good luck in your visit,” Aaron said. A light ball appeared in his hand. He tossed it up, and another appeared. He tossed that, and a third appeared. He resumed walking, juggling the three.
“Which is the thing about the enchanted paths,” Joy’nt said. “No harmful creature can get on one, so travelers know they are safe, and don’t freak out at the sight of us.”
“That does make it easier,” Picka agreed.
Soon they met another traveler. Like the other, he seemed slightly taken aback by their appearance, but not really concerned. “Hello. I am Champion. It is my talent to lend strength of body, substance, or character. But you folk don’t look as if you need any of that.”
“We don’t,” Picka agreed, and introduced the members of their party. “I hope I have a talent, and that I can find out what it is.”
“I regret I can’t help you there,” Champion said.
“Do you know something?” Picka said as they moved on. “Normal human beings seem like nice folk.”
“We just never got to know many,” Joy’nt said. “They were too busy screaming.”
“Even though we have left the bad-dream business behind,” he agreed. “In fact we never indulged in it. I wish I could somehow have a normal relationship with regular people. But that seems unlikely.”
“We are what we are,” she agreed somewhat sadly.
When they approached Castle Roogna, three animals intercepted them: a dog, a bird, and a cat.
But Picka had seen such tricks before. “Hello, Princesses,” he said. “We are looking for Princess Dawn.”
The animals formed into three blossoming fifteen-year-old girls, almost identical triplets. They all wore little gold crowns. “We knew that,” Melody said. She wore a green dress, and had greenish-blond hair and blue eyes.
“We told her you were coming,” Harmony said. She had a brown dress, hair, and eyes.
“She’s already packed and ready to travel,” Rhythm concluded. She had a red dress, red hair, and green eyes.
“But all we wanted was to ask her where—”
Princess Dawn arrived. She was twenty and as lovely as sunrise. She hugged Joy’nt, then Picka, not at all put off by their form. They were, after all, friends from childhood. “It can’t be told,” she said. “My sister values her privacy. I’ll show you the way.” She glanced around, then dropped to her knees to pet Woofer, stroke Midrange, and lift a finger for Tweeter to perch on. They had evidently met before.
Then Dawn walked purposefully into the orchard. They followed. So simply, they were on their way again.
Copyright © 2011 by Piers Anthony Jacob