Chapter 1: Quest.

Grundy Golem stretched and bounced off his cushion. He looked at himself in the mirror, not totally pleased. He stood the height of a normal man's spread-fingered hand, and that was fine for sleeping on a cushion but not all that great when it came to making an impression on the Land of Xanth.

It was a nice new day. Almost, he was able to forget that he was the least significant of living creatures. When he had been a true golem fashioned of wood and rag he had longed to be a real living thing, supposing that he would be satisfied if only he could become flesh. At last he had won that goal and for a time he had believed that he was happy. But slowly the truth had sunk in: he was still only a hands-breadth greater than nothing.

No one took him seriously. They thought he had a smart mouth because he liked insulting people; actually it was because he was trying desperately to cover over his deepening awareness of his own inadequacy. When he used his talent of language to make some other person or creature feel low, he felt a little higher himself--for a moment. But now he knew that this was a false device, and that his mouth had mainly brought him the contempt of others. He wished he could undo that damage and make of himself a genuinely worthwhile and respected person--but he didn't know how.

Meanwhile, he was hungry. That was a consequence of being real: he had to eat. It hadn't been that way when he had been a true golem. Then he had suffered no hunger, pain, or calls of nature. But he liked it better this way, he decided, because he also felt living pleasures.

And living miseries...

He slid down the banister and scrambled out the window that was normally left open for him. He landed in a clump of toadstools that had sprung up overnight, knocking several over. Unfortunately, a small toad had been sitting on one.

"Clumsy oaf!" the toad croaked, righting himself. "Watch where you're going!"

"Listen, frogface," Grundy retorted. "This is my path! You have no business here."

"I was on a toadstool, as I have a perfect right to be," the toad protested. "You just came barging through!"

The creature had a case, but Grundy didn't care. His irritation with the situation--and with all of Xanth--caused him to react in the familiar way that he wished he didn't. "Know what I think of that? I'll bash all these stinky things to smithereens!" And he grabbed up a stick and laid about him, knocking over toadstools right and left. Grundy was no giant, but they stood only about knee-high to him, and were easy to dispatch.

"Help!" the toad croaked. "Berserker on the loose!"

Suddenly there was a stirring throughout the weedy region beside the castle wall. Toads appeared, hopping in toward the summons--small ones at first, then larger ones, and finally one huge one.

Grundy realized he was in trouble. He tried to scramble up to the window, but the monster toad opened his ponderous maw and speared the golem with his tongue. The tongue was sticky; Grundy could not get free. The toad retracted it and hauled Grundy in.

"Eat him! Eat him!" the massed toads cried. "Teach him to leave toadstools alone!"

Grundy clutched at a half-buried rock, managing to halt his progress toward the maw. But now the little toads hopped on him, pounding him with their feet, and one of them wet on him.

Disgusted as well as frightened, he grabbed that toad and heaved it into the maw of the giant toad. The maw closed. The tongue released Grundy and snapped back home. Evidently the giant toad didn't mind what he ate.

But the little toads minded. "Get that monster!" they croaked, and snapped at him with their tongues. They couldn't do him much damage singly, but as a group they might. He tried to dodge the snapping tongues, but there were too many.

In addition, the giant toad was catching on that it hadn't eaten the whole thing. It reoriented on him.

Then Grundy spied a hypnogourd. That might help! He ran to it and dived behind it, so that its peephole was facing away from him and toward the toads. As the giant toad opened its maw and lined up its terrible tongue, Grundy shoved the gourd around so that the peephole bore directly on it.

The big toad looked--and froze. Its gaze had been trapped by the gourd.

"So there, filth-tongue!" he cried. "Now you're stuck!"

But the little toads weren't stuck. They averted their gazes and came leaping at him. One landed on his head, bearing it down. Grundy shook the creature off, but in the process caught a glimpse of the peephole himself.

Suddenly he found himself inside the gourd. He was standing amidst giant wooden gears. The huge toad was there too, and had a leg caught between two of them. The gears were drawing it slowly but inevitably between them, crushing it.

"Halp!" it cried. "I'm gonna croak!"

"Well, you were gonna eat me!" Grundy retorted. But he didn't like this; it was too ugly a demise.

He tried to pry the toad out, but the gears were too strong. Then he saw a small, loose gear. He picked it up and jammed it next to the toad's leg. As the two turning gears ground together, the loose one was crunched. In a moment the moving ones shuddered to a stop.

Now a huge stallion appeared, virtually snorting fire. His hide was midnight black, and his eyes glinted blacker. "I should have known!" the Night Stallion snorted. "A golem in the gears!" There was a subtle flicker.

Then Grundy and the giant toad were back in the real world, out of the gourd. Grundy realized that they had been ejected. The big toad's leg was whole, but it seemed to have lost its appetite.

Grundy realized that he had suffered the ultimate indignity: he had been rejected by the hypnogourd! No one had any use for him!

He scrambled again for the window, and this time made it. Fouled with the sticky spittle of the giant and the wetting of the midget, he fell inside. What a mess!

But worse than the ignominy of his present condition was his realization that he was of so little account that even a toad could humiliate him. It wasn't just a matter of size; it was an almost total lack of respect. He was a nobody, socially as well as physically.

What use was it to be a living creature, if he was of absolutely no consequence?

He found a bucket of wash water left over from yesterday's scrubbing of a floor, and labored to get himself clean. While he worked, he came to a conclusion, an answer to his question.

It was no use to live without respect. But what could he do about it? He was what he was, an insignificant creature.

As he ran across the room, he heard stifled sobbing. He paused, for now he also cared about others. He was seldom able to show it in ways they appreciated, but he did care. He looked about and discovered that it was a plant--a small green stem that looked rather wilted. Grundy's magic talent was the ability to converse with other living things, so he talked to the plant.

"What's the matter with you, greenface?"

"I'm w-wilting!" the plant responded.

"I can see that, potroot. Why?"

"Because Ivy forgot to w-water me," the plant blubbered. "She's so wrapped up with her mischief that--" It tried to squeeze out another tear, but could not; it had no water left.

Grundy went to the bathroom, climbed up on the sink and grabbed the damp sponge there. He hauled this down, dragged it across the floor, and to the plant. Then he hefted it up and squeezed it in a bear hug, so that water dribbled into the pot.

"Oh, thank you!" the plant exclaimed as it drank in the moisture. "How can I ever repay you?"

Grundy was as selfish as the next creature, but he didn't see any way the plant could do anything for him, so he elected to be generous. "Always glad to help a fellow creature," he said. "I'll tell Ivy to give you a good watering. What's she doing that's so distracting?"

"I'm not supposed to tell..." the plant demurred.

Now Grundy saw what the plant could do for him. "Didn't I just do you a favor, wiltleaf?"

The plant sighed. "Don't tell I told. Ivy's a terror when she gets mad."

Grundy well knew that! Ivy was eight years old and a full Sorceress; no one crossed her without regretting it. "I won't tell."

"She's teaching Dolph to be a bird, so he can fly out and look for Stanley."

Grundy pursed his tiny lips. That was mischief indeed! Dolph was her little brother, three years old and a Magician who could change to any living form instantly. Certainly he could become a bird and fly away--but just as certainly that would be disaster, because, if he didn't promptly get lost, he would get eaten by some airborne predator. This had to be stopped!

But Grundy had promised not to tell. He had broken promises before, but he was trying to steer a straighter course. Also, if he told on Ivy, he would be in immediate and serious trouble. He had to find some private way to stop this.

He went through the motions of breakfast, but found no answer to his problem. He saw Ivy going to Dolph's room and knew he had to act--without admitting what he knew. So he pretended to encounter her accidentally, intercepting her in the hall. "Whatcha up to, kid?"

"Go away, you little snoop," she said amiably.

"All right--I'll play with Dolph instead."

"Don't you dare!" she said with moderate fury. "I'm playing with him."

"We can both play with him," Grundy suggested. To that she was unable to demur, because she didn't want to give away her secret by being too insistent.

Dolph was up and dressed and ready to play. He was a handsome little boy with curly brown hair and a big smile. "See--I'm a bird!" he exclaimed, and suddenly he was a bird, a pretty red and green one.

"Ixnay," Ivy whispered, but Dolph was already changing back, pleased with his accomplishment.

"Can I go out and fly now?" he asked.

"Why would you want to fly?" Grundy inquired as if innocently.

"He doesn't," Ivy said quickly.

But Dolph was already answering. "I'm going to catch a dragon!" he said proudly.

"No, he isn't!" Ivy cried.

"That's very good, Dolph," Grundy said. "What dragon will you catch?"

"No dragon!" Ivy cried.

"Stanley Steamer," Dolph said. "He's lost."

Grundy turned to Ivy as if surprised. "What's he talking about? You know he's not allowed to go out alone."

"I told you not to snoop!" Ivy said furiously. "It's none of your business!"

"But you can't send Dolph out! If anything happened to him, your father would ask the walls of Castle Roogna who put him up to it, and then your mother would--"

Ivy put both hands protectively against her backside, knowing where her mother's wrath would strike. "But I've got to rescue Stanley!" she wailed. "He's my pet dragon!"

"But nobody even knows where he is," Grundy pointed out. "Or even whether he's--" He had to break off, because it would not be smart to utter the dread conjecture in Ivy's presence. Stanley had disappeared when a monster-banish spell had accidentally caught him. Of course he wasn't a monster; he was a pet, but the spell had not distinguished one type of dragon from another.

Naturally Ivy had pestered Good Magician Humfrey about Stanley's whereabouts, but there were so many dragons in Xanth that Humfrey's spells had not been able to isolate Stanley. Or so Humfrey claimed. Humfrey was younger than he once had been, and probably his magic wasn't up to snuff, but he wouldn't admit that.

"Somehow I'll find him," Ivy said resolutely. "He's my dragon."

There was some justice in that claim, Nobody could hold a dragon unless that dragon wanted to be held, and it had been friendship that held Stanley. Ivy had perceived him as her friend and her pet, and her enormous and subtle magic had made him so. Grundy was sure Stanley would have returned to her, had he been able. The fact that he had not returned strongly suggested that he was dead.

And Ivy would not give up the search. Grundy knew her well enough to accept that. Yet if she were not dissuaded, both she and her family might in the end suffer much greater distress than the loss of one little dragon--such as the loss of a little brother. Ivy was a Sorceress, but she was also a child; she lacked adult judgment.

Grundy could neither tell on her nor allow her to proceed with this foolish project. What was he to do?

It occurred to him that there was a noble way out of this dilemma--a way that just might bring him some of the esteem he craved. "I'll find him for you," he said.

Ivy clapped her hands in the way that little girls had. "You will? Oh, thank you, Grundy! I take back half the mean things I've said about you!"

Half? Well, half a loaf was evidently all he rated. "But while I'm doing it, you mustn't do anything yourself," he cautioned. "That could mess it up."

"Oh, I won't, I won't!" she agreed. "Not until you bring him back."

In this manner Grundy found himself committed to a Quest he strongly suspected was futile. But what else could he have done? Ivy needed her dragon back, and he needed to be a hero.

Grundy had no idea how to proceed, so he did what anyone in that situation would do: he went to ask the Good Magician. He caught a ride with a passing thesaurus who was going that way. The thesaurus was a very ancient breed of reptile who had picked up an enormous vocabulary during its centuries of life; it made for an interesting dialogue while they traveled. However, it had the annoying habit of never using a single term where several similar ones could be squeezed in. For example, when Grundy inquired where it was going, it swished its heavy tail and replied: "I am departing, leaving, removing, embarking, going, traveling for distant, remote, faraway, separated regions, zones, areas, territories, districts." By the time they reached the Good Magician's castle, Grundy was glad to bid it farewell, adieu, good-bye, and good riddance.

Now Grundy stood before the Good Magician's castle. Each time he had approached it over the years, it had looked different from the outside, but very little changed inside. This time it was suspiciously ordinary: a circular moat, gray stone walls, scattered motley turrets, and a general air of indifference to external things. Grundy knew this was illusory; Humfrey was the Magician of information, and though he was young now, he generally did know what was going on. He didn't like to be bothered about inconsequentials, so he established barriers to intrusions, on the theory that only folk with sufficiently important concerns would navigate them.

Well, Grundy had a concern and he knew he had to get past three obstacles to win entry. What he didn't know was what they were or how to nullify them. He would simply have to move ahead and do what he had to.

He stepped up to the edge of the moat. The water lay there, rippling at him. Naturally there was no way for him to cross; the drawbridge was up. Well, he would simply have to swim.

Swim? First he had better check out the moat monsters!

"Hey, snootface!" he called. Moat monsters were always varieties of water serpents and vain about their appearance.

There was no response. Well, he could handle that. "Say, grass," he said to the verdant bank. "Where's the monster?"

"On vacation, ragbrain," the grass replied.

Grundy was surprised. "No moat monster on duty? You mean I can safely swim across?"

"Fat chance, stringfellow," the grass replied. "You'd get eaten up before you got five strokes."

"But if there's no monster--"

The grass rustled in the breeze. "Suit yourself, woodnose."

Grundy didn't trust this. "How can I get eaten, if there's no monster?"

But the grass had been ruffled. "Find out for yourself, clayface." Obviously it had some notion of his origin, though he was no longer composed of string, rag, wood or clay. He didn't really appreciate its attitude, perhaps because it was so like his own.

Something was definitely amiss. He bent to poke a finger in the water, but an anticipatory rustle across the lawn alerted him. So he plucked a blade of grass, evoking a strenuous protest from the bank, and poked it in the water.

In a moment it dissolved into sludge. This mote was filled with acid!

Some obstacle! If he had tried to swim in that...!

He scrounged for a small stick, and poked that in the moat. It dissolved more slowly, being dead and more solid. He located a pebble and tried that, and it didn't dissolve at all.

Now he knew that the acid only affected animate material. Unfortunately, he was animate. He would have to use some sort of boat to cross, to keep his flesh clear of the liquid.

He searched the premises, looking for a boat. Naturally there was none. He heard a popping noise and discovered a popcorn plant, but that didn't help. He took a kernel of the corn on general principles, however; one never could tell when something might be useful in some obscure way.

Then he found a giant snail shell. The snail had long since passed away, but its hollow shell was beautiful, gleaming iridescently. But what use was an empty snail shell?

Suddenly he had a notion. He took hold of the shell and dragged it toward the moat. This was a job, as it weighed more than he did; he could have crawled inside the thing! But that just might be what he needed.

He shoved it to the moat and nudged it in. It floated with the hollow aperture up, and it did not dissolve. He pressed down on it, but it contained a lot more volume of air than he could displace; he could not push it below the surface of the liquid. Good enough again!

Grundy hauled the shell back on shore, then made another tour, locating several long twigs of wood. He brought them back, set them inside the shell, and launched it again. Then he climbed in himself, carefully. It supported his weight. Now he was floating!

He took a twig and used it to pole off from the bank. He settled himself as comfortably as he could inside the shell and used a flattened twig to paddle the craft. He had a snailboat!

Before long, his wooden paddle dissolved, and he had to use another. He had to paddle carefully, so as not to splash any of the acid on himself. Progress was slow, but the moat was not broad; he judged he would make it safely across if he didn't panic. Just as long as no monster appeared at this stage!

No monster appeared. Monsters didn't like acid any better than living golems did. An armored serpent might withstand the corrosion, but how would it protect its eyes and mouth?

In due course he nudged his way to a landing inside the moat, and stepped carefully to shore. One hurdle down.

He stood and looked about. He was on a fairly narrow beach between the moat and the wall. The beach curved around the island that was the castle. The wall was vertical and fashioned of flat, polished stone; he could see his reflection in it, but he couldn't catch so much as a fingerhold for climbing. He would have to walk around until he came to a suitable entrance.

He walked--and soon encountered a large animal. It was a unicorn! There were very few of them in Xanth; they seemed to prefer to range in other pastures. This one was a fairly disreputable-looking creature with a burr-tangled mane and a gnarled horn. It snorted as it spied him and pawed at the sand with a forehoof.

"Hi there, warp-horn," Grundy said in equine language with his usual politeness. "Why don't you clean up that stinking coat?"

"I'll clean up the sand with you, you midget blot," the unicorn replied with unprovoked bad humor.

Oops--this was evidently another obstacle. "I don't suppose you'd care to let me pass, so I can go on into the castle," Grundy said.

"I don't suppose you'd care to take a bath in the moat," the unicorn replied in the same tone.

Grundy made as if to scoot under the creature, for there was no room to pass on the side. The unicorn made as if to spear anything that tried that route. It was obvious that he could not get by; the animal was set to prevent it.

The golem stood back and considered. How could he pass a creature who was determined to prevent it and had the ability to enforce the restriction? There had to be a way.

He had a notion. He turned and walked away. He could circle the castle in either direction, and reach the entrance either way. The unicorn did not pursue him, perhaps too stupid to realize what he was doing.

Grundy walked three-quarters of the way around the castle--and stopped. There was the unicorn, facing the other way, horn lowered warningly. Obviously it had backed up to the entrance place, used that wider region to turn, and had come to block this route too. It wasn't stupid after all; it had known that it couldn't protect the entrance by chasing the golem around the castle.

Well, maybe he could trick it into letting down its guard. Or make it so mad it miscalculated. Grundy had a rare touch with insults, when he put his beady little mind to it. "Say, founderfoot, did they put you out here so you won't stink up the inside of the castle?"

"No, they put me out here so you wouldn't stink it up," the unicorn replied.

Hmmm. This might be more of a challenge than he had thought. But Grundy tried again. "Did you get that horn caught in a hole in the ground? No self-respecting creature would carry a broken spear like that!"

"Did you get that body caught in a shrinking violet?" the unicorn responded. "No self-respecting midget would use it."

"Listen, knot-mane, I'm a golem!" Grundy exclaimed. "I'm supposed to be this size."

"I doubt it. That body is way too small for that mouth." Grundy swelled up to his full diminutive height, ready to spew forth a devastating torrent of abuse--and realized that the unicorn was winning the contest. It was the one that was supposed to be getting mad!

He would have to try some other tack. Well, if he couldn't beat it, maybe he could join it. "What do you want most in all Xanth?" he inquired.

"To get rid of pesky golems so I can resume my snooze."

"Apart from that," Grundy said unevenly.

The unicorn considered. "Well, I do get hungry, and meals are far apart. I'd sure like a nice snack of something good."

That was more promising. But Grundy wasn't sure how he could provide such a snack. "If you let me into the castle, maybe I could get you some nice hay or something," he suggested.

"If I let you into the castle, maybe I'll get my hide tanned before I'm ready to leave it," the unicorn said.

"Maybe I could get you a snack without going in," Grundy said.

"I'd be glad to have a snack without you going in," the creature agreed.

Somehow that didn't sound promising. Grundy stared across the moat, where the grass was green and the brush was leafy. Surely there was plenty there to distract the unicorn--but the unicorn couldn't cross to it, and Grundy himself would not be able to carry enough across in the snailboat to last for more than one mouthful at a time.

He spied a tall green plant that sported several tassels. That jogged his memory. Maybe there was a way!

"What kind of a plant are you?" he called in plant language. The unicorn couldn't understand that, of course, so it didn't know what he was doing.

"I am a popcorn plant," the plant replied proudly. "I have the best popcorn on the bank!"

Grundy turned to the unicorn. "Unicorns don't like popcorn, do they?"

"Of course they don't," the creature agreed, its mouth watering.

Aha! He remembered correctly. Unicorns liked all kinds of corns, because they were magically related.

He returned his attention to the popcorn. "You don't look like much to me," he sneered in plant language.

The plant huffed up and turned color. "I'm the top pop!" it proclaimed. "My kernels pop harder than anyone's!"

"They do not!" Grundy retorted. "I bet they fizzle!"

"Fizzle!" the plant snapped, outraged. Its ears turned an angry red. "I'll pop off so hard you'll think it's an explosion!"

"I think it's a fake!" Grundy said. The plant's corns became so hot that the tassels browned and shriveled, and the leaves around its ears split apart. The kernels popped with the heat, first a few, then many, until it did indeed resemble an explosion. Popcorn puffs flew out in every direction, a number of them arcing over the moat and peppering the castle wall.

"Popcorn!" the unicorn exclaimed, eagerly snatching up the fallen pieces.

"But unicorns don't like popcorn," Grundy reminded it.

"Get out of here, golem!" the creature cried angrily.

"As you wish." Grundy retreated to the unicorn's rear, toward the gate, and the creature was so distracted by the delicious popcorn puffs that it didn't notice. Grundy moved on up to the gate and through it without further opposition. He was inside the castle!

"Very clever, you little morsel," a voice growled.

Grundy looked, startled. He was in a moderately sized court with a dirt floor, and before him stood an ant-lion. The monster could snap him up in a moment, if it wanted to.

"I'm just trying to get in to see the Good Magician on important business," the golem said nervously.

"Indeed." The ant-lion yawned, showing its enormous feline teeth. It was playing cat-and-mouse with him, knowing that its six insect legs could overtake him anytime. "I doubt you are smart enough to rate any of his time."

"Sure I am!" Grundy retorted hotly. "I'm just not big enough to get by all you monsters."

"I will make you a deal," the ant-lion said, stretching languorously. "Prove you are smart and I will let you pass."

It was up to something. But Grundy realized he had nothing to lose; he was already in its power. "How do I do that?"

"You play me three games of lines and boxes," the ant-lion said. "If you can defeat me, I'll let you enter. If you lose, I'll consume you. That's very fair, isn't it?"

Grundy swallowed. He was not entirely pleased with the terms. "Suppose we tie?"

"Then I will let you enter anyway. I can be magnanimous to an intellectual equal. To make it even easier for you, I will even grant you the first move each time."

Grundy still didn't like this. But he was aware of two things: first, he really had no choice, as he could not otherwise get in to see the Good Magician, and second, he was a pretty good player of lines and boxes. He could probably win. "I agree," he said.

"Excellent!" the ant-lion said heartily. It leaped suddenly into the air and came down with its six legs straight. It was a fairly massive creature, so each leg sank into the dirt as it landed. It stepped out of its tracks, and six neat depressions remained. Then it jumped again, this time landing a little to the side. The three right legs landed in the dents left by the three left legs before, and the three left legs made three new dents.

The monster stepped carefully back. There before it was a neat pattern of nine dents, forming a large square with one dent in the center. "There is the board," it announced.

"That's only enough for four boxes!" Grundy protested.

The ant-lion extended a claw and contemplated it. "So?"

Grundy decided not to protest further. A small game was the same as a big one in principle, after all, and he did have the first move. He stepped up and scratched a line with his foot between a corner dent and the center dent on his side.

The ant-lion reached across and scraped another line, from Grundy's center dot to the other corner dot. One side of the figure was complete.

Grundy drew a line from a near corner up to connect to the middle dot on that side. The ant-lion made another, completing that side. Grundy drew one along the side closest to the ant-lion, and the ant-lion completed this one also. Then they each put a line in the fourth side. Now the figure was a large box--and Grundy realized he was in trouble.

He had no choice now but to draw a line from the center dot to one of the sides. That would set things up for his opponent to complete a box with his line, and then use his extra turn to complete another box, and so on through the figure, winning. He had been trapped into a game he couldn't win.

"Move--or forfeit," the ant-lion said with satisfaction. Grundy sighed and moved. Whereupon the ant-lion did exactly as expected, filling in all four boxes and marking his neat letter A's in each. Grundy had lost badly.

"I gave you the advantage of the first move every time, and I am a creature of my word."


The monster extended another claw and studied it significantly. Grundy realized that he had to accept this generosity.

What was he to do? The advantage clearly lay with the second player--and that advantage was going to get him consumed by the monster!

Then Grundy remembered something. There just might be a way! He had not played such small games before, but the principle should hold. The key was in the fact that a player did not have to complete a box if he did not want to, provided he was able to make some other move instead. That seemed like a losing strategy, so it was seldom employed, but it had its points. He would use it here.

They started the second game of their appointed three. Grundy started exactly as he had before, and the ant-lion continued as before. They completed two sides of the outer square. Then Grundy made his surprise move: he drew a line to the center.

The Ant-Lion drew its bonus line in the opposite side, to avoid giving Grundy a similar gift. Grundy filled in the last free spot. Now the diagram looked like this: to fill in the last available free space. It didn't matter which player took the box and the bonus line; that extra line shifted the advantage to the first player. The configuration now was this:

The ant-lion got ready to draw his line--and paused. There was nowhere he could move, without setting Grundy up for three boxes and victory. "I'll be cursed!" it exclaimed. "You set me up!"

"Merely playing the game to win," Grundy replied modestly.

With imperfect grace, the ant-lion drew a line at the edge, and Grundy filled in the rest, marking G's in three boxes.

The score stood at one victory each. The ant-lion was very thoughtful as they commenced the deciding game. This one started as the others had, but when Grundy offered the sacrifice box, the other declined it, choosing instead to continue around the rim. Now Grundy was nervous; could this force the win back to the ant-lion?

Then Grundy saw the other side of the key. He moved in and took the first box himself, and used his bonus line.

The ant-lion stared at it for a long time. Finally it shrugged, and filled in a line. Grundy filled in the remaining three boxes.

"I learned something today," the ant-lion said philosophically. "The ploy of the proffered box, which is disaster whether accepted or declined. I congratulate you, Golem; you have proved yourself to be smart enough to pass." And the monster stood aside and allowed Grundy to enter the castle.

Grundy's little knees were weak. In retrospect he realized that the Good Magician had surely known about the way to reverse the game, so that it represented a fair test of ingenuity. But how close he had come to failing the test!

Now he walked through another gate, and there was the veiled Gorgon. "What kept you, Grundy?" she inquired solicitously.

Grundy didn't have it in him to make a smart reply. "I just want to see the Magician."

"By all means. But be careful; he's grumpy today."

She ushered him into the Good Magician's office. Humfrey was perched on his high stool, poring over a monstrous tome. That was par for the course. He was now about twelve years old, physically, having recovered that far from the overdose of Youth Elixir he had suffered five years before.

"Magician, I need advice on--" Grundy began.

"Go away," Humfrey grumped.

"I just want to--"

"One year's service--in advance."

This was of course standard procedure for the Good Magician. But Grundy had been shaken by the experience with the ant-lion, and his natural manner of expressing himself surged to the fore. "Listen, you rejuvenated freak! You're such an idiot you've missed the obvious for five years! You can be any age you want to, anytime. I can give you back a century of your life, with one sentence. Then you'll owe me a hundred Answers!"

This got the Good Magician's full attention. "Prove it."

"All you have to do is dunk a stick of reverse-wood in a cup of Youth Elixir. Then it will--"

"Become Age Elixir!" Humfrey finished, amazed. "Now why didn't I think of that?"

"Because you're an--"

"I heard. Very well, Golem--you've earned your Answer. Ask your Question."

"I've earned all the Answers I want!" Grundy exclaimed.

"No. You have done me one service that I may exploit to my satisfaction. How many years I use it for does not relate; it is your year that counts. Ask."

Grundy realized that the Good Magician, like the ant-lion, was a creature of no compromise. At least he had what he wanted.

"How can I find and rescue Stanley Steamer?"

"Oho! You're doing something about that!" Humfrey glanced at his open book. "It says you must ride the Monster Under the Bed to the Ivory Tower."

"You mean you had it open to the place all the time?" Grundy demanded indignantly.

"Is that another Question?"

Grundy ground his teeth. The Good Magician didn't give anything away for nothing, unless the visitor was a Magician. "At least tell me where the Ivory Tower is!"

"Do you want to pay your year's service before or after I give you that Answer?"

"You gnomish cheapskate!" Grundy raged. "I just gave you back your age, hardly a minute ago!"

Humfrey's lips quirked. "And what have you done for me lately, Golem?"

Grundy stormed out of the room. The Good Magician hardly noticed; he was back poring over his tome.