Chapter Twenty: The Stag

It was afternoon, and the sun was quite warm. This part of the Realm, despite not falling within the confines of Percepolis, seemed inhabited, though more sparsely; there were cottages, sitting all by themselves in the middle of fields or on top of hills, and farms with ranch houses and barns, and a flock of sheep that the shepherd was keeping track of by dropping pebbles into a bucket. They passed a herd of cows that were completely round and recognizable as cows only by the black spots on white. Those looked very easy to manage since they couldn't run away and could be tapped along wherever they were meant to go with a stick, but Nyssa couldn't imagine how they'd be milked.

The ground was getting hillier. Nyssa knew they were headed for a Valley, and supposed that they'd need to get all the way over the mountains ahead before they could go down into it; she drew lightly on her map, because she thought it might be useful to have a guess of how things would go before they got there even if she knew not to expect too hard that it was the right guess.

Eventually the curiosipede veered down a track that led into a downsloping canyon between two of the mountains. It was winding and narrow, and there was a sign stuck into the rocks beside its entrance. It looked a little like a deer crossing sign, with a silhouette of a deer and everything, but it had words, too: "Catch The Stag - It Grants Wishes!"

"Oh wow," said Nyssa, "a wish-granting stag! Maybe it can get Wonder out of the Ivory Tower for us, and we won't have to go into the Valley at all."

"If it were that easy," said a voice, "surely someone would have done it by now."

"Maybe catching the stag is really hard," said Nyssa, looking around.

"Well, if it's really hard, all the more reason to expect you can't do it." The voice turned out to belong to a creature Nyssa didn't recognize, with long claws and long fur and long arms. It had sad looking eyes, and it barely turned its head to look at her. "When have you ever done something really hard, hm?"

"I - well, if I had, then I would have had to do it a first time," said Nyssa.

"Never," pronounced the creature. "That's when."

"Well... that's true," admitted Nyssa, "but -"

"Someone else will certainly get to it eventually," went on the creature. "There's no reason it has to be you, running that gauntlet of horrors all alone."

"I have Pomodoro with me," Nyssa said.

"And what good is that? Somebody with a lot of real help along would stand more of a chance. An army. The police. Firefighters. At least firefighters have ladders," the thing yawned.

"But... I don't think any of those people are coming," said Nyssa.

"How would you know?" sneered the creature. "You don't know anything. You're a little girl. You're not even from around here."

"Oh..." Nyssa, for no reason she quite interrogated, slumped on the curiosipede's bench. She was just a little girl from far away who'd gotten a silly idea and gone tearing off to do something about it. She vaguely thought of turning around and returning her gifts, but the curiosipede wasn't wound up just now, and for some reason she couldn't think of anything she really wanted to know. At length she wondered how she was going to get home, but the wheels spun listlessly. Perhaps she wasn't thinking about it honestly.

Pomodoro started ringing.

"What is it?" Nyssa asked tiredly.

"I think this probably isn't a very good way to spend time," said Pomodoro, still ringing.

"Oh... I don't know what would be better."

"I don't know. Something else," said Pomodoro anxiously. "We could hunt the stag."

"It's probably really hard," said Nyssa.

"Well, it might be better than sitting here anyway," said Pomodoro.

"Definitely not," said the creature. "Not at all."

"Maybe it's wrong," said Pomodoro, still abuzz with chiming noises that seemed to be getting louder. "It could just be wrong."

"But what if it's right?"

"Then we could find out," beseeched Pomodoro. "Come on, let's try to find the wish-granting stag, Nyssa."

Nyssa sighed. "Okay, if you really want to. But I don't think this thing is working," she gently kicked the curiosipede, "so we'll have to walk."

So she got up and set Pomodoro down on the ground so it could travel separately. "How do we hunt a stag?" she asked.

"I've never tried it before," said Pomodoro, "but this is a pretty narrow canyon, and it will probably run away from you, so how about I sneak to the other end because I'm smaller, and you go through the canyon and look for it and chase it at me, and then I can jump onto its face so it can't see and then you can catch it?"

"Okay," said Nyssa, and after Pomodoro had a bit of a head start, she plodded through the canyon, sighing when the long-clawed creature called after them that it was a waste of time.

The canyon was very narrow but here and there, in some sections, it had less steep sides. On one of these slopes, Nyssa spotted a rabbit - but not just any rabbit, a rabbit with pastel-colored stripes and spots. It was without a doubt the Easter Bunny, or at least an Easter Bunny.

Nyssa did not really want to go through the entire canyon - on foot while her stupid curiosipede wasn't working - to maybe find a stag that maybe granted wishes and was probably really hard to catch. But sitting around eating candy was more her speed at the moment. She lunged toward the Easter Bunny and caught it by the ears. It yelped. She gave it a shake, and a chocolate egg fell from its clutches; she let it go, and it bounded away. She didn't notice the hoofbeats behind her while she ate her candy, which was small and kind of cheap and disappointing but better than nothing.

"NYSSA!" came Pomodoro's voice angrily from the far end.

"Uh. COMING!" Nyssa called back. She got up and ran, but it was too late. Pomodoro was alone, no stag.

"Where were you?" Pomodoro said. "I jumped on its eyes and it stumbled around confused a bit but then it shook me off and you weren't here!"

"...sorry," said Nyssa. "I got distracted."

"It went that way," said Pomodoro, extending a couple minutes in the direction of the Valley.

The Valley looked terrifying. It was bare of plants, except a few leafless scraggly shrubs and some dead-looking tufts of grass. Much of it was shadowed by the surrounding mountains. And it was so huge, and so covered with low dense fog, that Nyssa couldn't see more than a hundred yards into it. Beyond that everything was vague and grey and dim, with a few ominous shapes moving darkly through the mist.

"Oh," said Nyssa despondently, "I don't know how we're ever going to get through all that and find the Ivory Tower in it, without a stag that grants wishes."

"It's probably better not to bother," said the same voice that had previously seemed to be coming from the long-clawed creature near the entrance to the canyon. This time there was no creature to be found. The sound seemed to come from nowhere. "There's no way it will work, and you could get caught by one of those demons or awful monsters in the bargain, all for nothing. Anyway, it isn't that important. If it were important someone else would do something about it, wouldn't they?"

Nyssa yawned and sat on a nearby rock. The creature - or whatever ventriloquist had made it look like the creature was speaking - had a point. Quite a lot of points really. Even thinking about the argument in more detail seemed exhausting. She supposed she'd better turn around and go back, get in the curiosipede and think of something she wanted to know, though there didn't seem to be anything coming to mind... what good was knowing things, after all, if you couldn't do anything with them? So she sat.

"Nyssa," said Pomodoro.

"What?" grumbled Nyssa.

"Nyssa, I think some of those things in the mist are getting closer."

"Oh. I guess we'd better get out of here, then," Nyssa said, but she didn't move.

"They'd probably catch you," said the voice of the creature. "One way you get caught, and the other way you get caught while you're tired from running, doesn't seem like it makes much difference."

Pomodoro rang, but Nyssa barely heard it.

It occurred to Nyssa through the haze of her thoughts that this was all very strange. She'd come a long way from home. She'd been in many new places and she had special gifts and she'd been determined just minutes ago to go on and rescue the Princess. She'd decided it was important, and she'd had reasons. And now she was sitting on a rock, looking at her fingernails, ignoring her friend, and expecting to be devoured by monsters.

"Excuse me," she said, looking vaguely up and to her right in the direction the creature was, though she was no longer sure it was the source of the voice.

"You're excused," it said. "From everything, in fact. Just you sit tight."

"I just wanted to ask who you are," said Nyssa.

"I!" said the voice. "I have many names. Some call me the Passive Voice. Some call me Sloth. Some call me the Weakener of Wills. You may call me... the demon Akrasia."

Nyssa stood up. She didn't want to stand up, and she wasn't sure it would help, but at this rate if she didn't do things that might not help and weren't appealing she'd be eaten alive.

"Sit back down, dear," said Akrasia. "There's no need for all this fuss."

Nyssa pulled out the lens that she had gotten from the Precedent and held it in front of her eye, and she saw. Everything looked the same as it had, but she saw how it wasn't the same as it looked. Her quest was not pointless and her curiosipede was not broken. She was not unarmed and she was not alone.

And she wanted, suddenly, very badly, to know - whether the curiosipede could follow her here, through the narrow canyon, into the Valley, and carry her quick enough past all those threatening shapes that were coming to feast on what the demon Akrasia had very nearly caught in its web -

Wheels whirring, the curiosipede burst into view; its bench clobbered Nyssa in the back of the knees and she sat down hard, barely grabbing Pomodoro in time.

They sped into the Valley at top speed, the Passive Voice still entreating them to stay and rest and ignore all this ridiculous questing. "You'll never get anywhere in the Valley!" it cried. "There are others, worse than me!"