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"But you wanted a real nymph."
"No. I wanted a real person. And you are that, Imbri."
"But I'm an animal."
"In the same sense I am. Somewhere in my ancestry the human and caprine stocks got together, so I am mostly human at the top and goat at the bottom. You are equine in body, but human in mind, as your nice animation of the nymph form showed."
"Thank you," she said sadly. "I would gladly have played with you, when I had solidity."
They encountered two folk going along the path, looking lost: a young man and a short haired, green eyed cat. In fact they looked about the way Forrest felt, so he paused to address them. "Are you looking for something?"
"The Region of Madness," the man said. "I'm Christophe 'Joker' Justino. I think I'm either coming from it or going to It, I'm not sure which. I thought Bluejay knew the way, but now I think she's lost."
"You're from Mundania!" Forrest said.
"Tell him to keep going the way they're going," Imbri said. "The Region of Madness is shrinking, but there's still plenty of it to the south.
Forrest remembered that others couldn't see or hear Imbri, unless she planted a dreamlet in their minds. So he relayed the message. Man and cat thanked him and moved on.
Then Forrest realized something. "They're like us!" he exclaimed.
"Without bearings, depressed, not knowing or much caring where they're going."
"Because they can't go back to where they were, and wouldn't want to anyway," Imbri agreed. "Oh, Forrest, if it weren't for your obligation to your tree, I would truly wish we could go back to Ptero."
"Maybe to keep company with Cathryn Centaur, or on Pyramid," he agreed.
"Or even on Torus, if Ida cared to share the Isle of Niffen," she said dreamily. As a day mare, she was very good at dreams.
"I remember how that odd beautiful woman Chlorine with the ugly dragon a.s.s said that when I got back, I would be happier than I have ever been.
Instead I am sadder."
"You surely are," she agreed. "At least I will be able to make Jenny Elf happier, when I deliver Vision Centaur's message about the gene-tic to fix her vision."
"Oh, yes, I had forgotten about that. That's nice."
Something swirled ahead of them. It coalesced into a familiar demoness.
"So you're back! But where is your fellow faun?"
"Please don't tease me, demoness," he said tiredly. "I'm really not in the mood for it."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to."
He glanced sharply at her. "You are apologizing?"
"I am the Demoness Metria. I have a quarter of a soul. So I do care somewhat."
"But it was the Demoness Mentia I talked to before."
"Yes, my worser half. She's baby-sitting Demon Ted while I stretch my substance. So I came to check on you, following her report. What happened?"
"My quest failed."
"Oh, no! What then of the clog tree?"
"I don't know."
"But didn't the Good Magician help you?"
"Not that I know of."
"Well, I feel a quarter bad about this, so I'll help you slightly. I'll give you a lift back to your tree."
That isn't necessary."
But she was already firming her hands under his elbows and lifting him up. In a moment he was flying above the trees, and then over the Gap Chasm. Actually this did help, because he would have had a problem crossing the Gap on his own. He did need to get back to his sandalwood tree promptly, because he wasn't sure how much time had pa.s.sed. There was no sense losing two trees instead of one.
She set him down in the glade between the trees, where in the past he had celebrated with nymphs. "Bye," she said, and faded out.
"Wait!" he cried.
She faded back in. "yes?" she asked.
"I met your son Chaos. His talent is to make things transparent."
"But I don't have such a son."
"Not yet. But I think he's on the way. Did you signal the stork again?"
She toted up the count on her fingertips. "Seven hundred and fifty times in the past year."
"One of the signals must have gotten through."
"Fancy that," she said, pleased, and faded out again.
"That was nice of her, giving you the lift," Imbri said. "She's a different creature since she got that half soul. So am I, since I got mine."
Forrest ran to his tree. It was all right; the spell had maintained it.
He hugged it, then nerved himself for the unpleasant ch.o.r.e.
"Where are you going?" Imbri asked.
"To tell the clog tree that I have failed. I hate this, but it wouldn't be right to let it fade without knowing."
"You're a nice person."
"No. I'm a failed person."
The clog tree, too, was in good order, thanks to the spell. But Forrest knew it wouldn't be, after he told it his bad news. So he dawdled, feeling ashamed, but unable to squeeze the unkind words out just yet.
Imbri walked up to the tree. "I like your clogs," she said.
Then something strange happened. Misty colors flitted through the foliage of the tree, forming into an image. It looked like a woodland scene, a lovely little glade in the morning. Flowers blossomed around its edges, and water flowed into a pool in its center. A lovely darkhaired nymph sat sunning herself on a slab of sandstone, running a crystal comb through her l.u.s.trous tresses.
A figure appeared behind her. It was a man, no, a faun. He put his hands over the nymph's eyes, then bent down and kissed her on the mouth.
Then he brought out his panpipes and played a merry melody; the little black notes rose up, scattering across the scene. Some of them turned white, a.s.suming the form of little storks. As he played, he danced. In a moment she got up and danced with him. They moved around the glade, in a mock chase, kicking their feet high to the music. But his dance was faster than hers, and soon he caught up to her. The panpipes disappeared as they joyously embraced and celebrated.
Then they adjourned to the meal she had evidently prepared: lemon herbal tea, oatcakes, and an a.s.sortment of creamy goat cheeses. He teasingly offered her a horse nut, but she declined any more after the first bite.
Tiny hummingbirds flew in to perch on the stones and on the faun and nymph. They were all colors, scintillating like gems: topaz, ruby, opal, and lapis lazuli.
Suddenly Forrest recognized the figures. They were himself and Imbri in her nymph form. But what were they doing in a picture in the foliage of the tree?
He tried to make sense of it. Imbri had gone to stand close to the tree, and then the scene had formed. With the two of them in it. Loving each other. As if the tree had somehow picked up Imbri's secret thoughts and animated them. The dreams of a night mare.
A glorious suspicion washed through him. He reached over his shoulder and plunged his hand into his knapsack. He found the dear horn and hauled it out. As he did so, a fragment of paper fluttered down. It must have been caught in the horn. He reached down to pick it up. Could it be the lost notes of the Good Magician?
No, it was a different piece, royally embossed. A single word was written on it, in a princessly script: Imbri.
Suddenly he remembered when Dawn had touched them, on Torus, and learned something she wouldn't tell. She had talked with Ida, and then hugged and kissed Forrest, her special favor done. But she had never said what it was.
She must have slipped this note into his knap sack, under the cover of her embrace. Her answer about the ident.i.ty of the creature he was looking for.
But why hadn't she just told him? Now that came clear too. If she had, his quest would have ended right there-and his mission with Dawn & Eve wasn't yet complete. It might have been out of his control; he and Imbri might have dissolved into soul substance and gone back to Xanth, unable to stop themselves. Leaving the human section of Ptero to its fate of marginalization. So Dawn couldn't tell him, until after that was done. But she wanted to tell him immediately, so that her love for him would be equal to Eve's. So she had done so, in her fashion, giving him a note that he would be sure to see eventually.
He lifted the dear horn and blew. The delightful sound went out, and echoed from Imbri, though she had no substance. She was indeed the one.
She had turned and was looking at him, not understanding. "Imbri-I saw your dream. Of you and me, together. The tree animated it."
"Oh!" she said, blushing.
"Are you willing to become the spirit of the tree, to share its fate until the end?"
"But I can't. I have no substance."
"Yes you can. And if you do, the tree will lend you enough substance to make a solid body. A nymph-or a mare, so you can gallop in new pastures. Spirits help trees; trees help spirits. They are bound together. And you and I can be to either physically. As in your dream."
"But I never thought-"
"Why did you do so much more for me than was required by your Service to the Good Magician?"
"I wanted to be sure you succeeded."
"What about when the twin princesses were seducing me? You never interfered."
"I wanted you to be happy."
"But don't you see-that's true love! You were doing everything for me, with no thought for yourself."
She blushed again, unable to deny it.
"And why didn't you return to the Good Magician for your Answer, when your Service was done? Because it was done, even if my part of it seemed unsuccessful."
"I just-didn't want to leave you," she said.
"And you thought there was no way that the two of us could be together in Xanth. You didn't know about what trees offer."
"I didn't know," she agreed.
"But the tree knew. As soon as you came near, it knew. Its spirit interacted with yours. It was that interaction I saw."
She nodded. "But the Good Magician surely knew. Why didn't he tell me?"
"Because I wasn't ready. I thought that all I wanted was a faun for the tree. But in the course of the adventure I learned some of the human breadth and depth of mind and emotion. That left me forever unsatisfied with less. The Good Magician wouldn't take my Question because he knew it was the wrong one. He knew that I was your Answer-for you didn't know your real desire either. It wasn't for a new pasture, it was for true love. And I could be that love-once I learned how. And now I know that neither nymph nor human woman is what is right for me. What I need is a companion who has a similar length of life to my own. Who truly understands. Who I can love and be loved by. And that is you, Imbri.
It was always you. It just wasn't always me."
"This is so hard to believe."
"Just adopt the clog tree. Then we will play out your dream scene.
While you learn to believe, I will learn to love you. I am already falling." For he saw the little hearts forming, orbiting his head like tiny moons. They were shaping into gem-like hummingbirds. She was perfect for him, and not only because they had shared an experience like no other.
"Oh, you mustn't fall and crash," she said. She turned to the tree, stretching out her arms. As she did so, the foliage became brilliant, and her body became solid, in the form of a lovely nymph: small but perfect.
Then she turned back to Forrest, to catch him before he fell too far.