Trent was gone now-but his works remained, for there was no other transformer to change them back. Holographs, hotseats, and invisible wails were qualifying talents, but transformation was of a different order. Only once in a generation did such power manifest in an individual, and it seldom manifested twice in the same form. Justin had been one of Magician Trent's annoyances-no one remembered exactly what he had done-so Justin was a tree. No one had the ability to change him back into a man.
Justin's own talent had been voice projection-not the parlor trick that was ventriloquism, or the trivial talent of insane laughter, but genuine comprehensible utterance at a distance without the use of vocal cords. He retained this talent as a tree, and as he had a great deal of time for thought, villagers often came to this tree for advice. Often it was good advice. Justin was no genius, but a tree had greater objectivity about human problems.
It occurred to Bink that Justin might actually be better off as a tree than he had been as a man. He liked people, but it was said that in his human form he had not been handsome. As a tree he was quite stately, and no threat to anyone.
They veered to approach Justin. Suddenly a voice spoke directly in front of them: "Do not approach, friends; ruffians are lurking."
Bink and Sabrina drew up short. "Is that you, Justin?'' she asked. "Who is lurking?"
But the tree could not hear as well as it could speak, and did not answer. Wood did not seem to make the best ears.
Bink, angry, took a step toward it. "Justin is public scenery," he muttered. "Nobody has a right to-"
"Please, Bink!" Sabrina urged, pulling back on arm. "We don't want any trouble."
No, she never wanted any trouble. He would not go so far as to call this a fault in her, but at times it became annoyingly inconvenient Bink himself never let trouble bar him from a matter of principle. Still, Sabrina was beautiful, and he had caused her trouble enough already tonight. He turned to accompany her away from the tree.
"Hey, no fair!" a voice exclaimed. "They're going away."
"Justin must've tattled," another cried.
"Then let's chop down Justin."
Bink halted again. "They wouldn't!" he said.
"Of course they wouldn't," Sabrina agreed. "Justin is a village monument. Ignore them."
But the voice of the tree came again, a bit misplaced in relation to Bink and Sabrina-evidence of poor concentration. "Friends, please fetch the King quickly. These ruffians have an axe or something, and they've been eating locoberries."
"An axe!" Sabrina exclaimed in sheer horror.
"The King is out of town," Bink muttered. "Anyway, he's senile."
"And he hasn't summoned more than a summer shower in years," Sabrina agreed. "Kids didn't dare make so much mischief when he had his full magic."
"We certainly didn't," Bink said. "Remember the hurricane flanked by six tornadoes he summoned to put down the last wiggle spawning? He was a real Storm King then. He-"
There was the ringing sound of metal biting into wood. A scream of sheer agony erupted from the air. Bink and Sabrina jumped.
"That's Justin!" she said. "They're doing it."
"No time for the King anyway," Bink said. He charged toward the tree.
"Bink, you can't!" Sabrina cried after him, "You don't have any magic."
So the truth came out, in this moment of crisis. She didn't really believe he had a talent. "I've got muscle, though!" he yelled back. "You go for help."
Justin screamed again as the blade struck a second time. It was an eerie wooden noise. There was laughter-the merry mirth of kids out on a lark, having no care at all what consequences their actions might have. Loco? This was mere insensitivity.
Then Bink was there. And-he was alone. Just when he was in the mood for a good fight. The malicious pranksters had scattered.
He could guess their identities-but he didn't have to. "Jama, Zink, and Potipher," Justin Tree said. "Oooo, my foot!"
Bink squatted to inspect the cut. The white wood-wound was clearly visible in contrast to the shoelike bark of the base of the tree trunk. Driblets of reddish sap were forming, very much like blood. Not too serious for a tree this size, but surely extremely uncomfortable.
"I'll get some compresses for that," Bink said. "There's some coral sponge in the forest near here. Yell if anyone bothers you while I'm gone."
"I will," Justin said. "Hurry." Then, as an afterthought: "You're a great guy, Bink. Much better than some who-uh-"
"Than some who have magic," Bink finished for him. "Thanks for trying to spare my feelings." Justin meant well, but sometimes spoke before he thought. It came from having a wooden brain.
"It isn't fair that louts like Jama are called citizens, while you-"
"Thanks," Bink said gruffly, moving off. He agreed completely, but what was the use talking about it? He watched out for anyone lurking in the bushes, waiting to bother Justin when the tree was unprotected, but saw nobody. They were really gone.
Jama, Zink, and Potipher, he thought darkly-the village troublemakers. Jama's talent was the manifestation of a sword, and that was what had chopped Justin's trunk. Anyone who could imagine that such vandalism was funny-
Bink remembered one of his own bitter experiences with that bunch, not so many years ago. Intoxicated by locoberries, the three had lurked in ambush along one of the paths beyond the village, just looking for mischief. Bink and a friend had walked into that trap, and been backed up against the cloud of poison gas that was Potipher's magic talent, while Zink made mirage-holes near their feet and Jama materialized flying swords for them to duck. Some sport!
Bink's friend had used his magic to escape, animating a golem from a stick of wood that took his place. The golem had resembled him exactly, so that it fooled the pranksters. Bink had known the difference, of course, but he had covered for his friend. Unfortunately, though the golem was immune to poison gas, Bink was not. He had inhaled some of it, and lost consciousness even as help arrived. His friend had brought Bink's mother and father-
Bink had found himself holding his breath again as the poison cloud enveloped him. He saw his mother tugging at his father's arm, pointing Bink's way. Bianca's talent was replay: she could jump time back five seconds in a small area. This was very limited but deviously powerful magic, for it enabled her to correct a just-made mistake. Such as Bink's breath of poison gas.
Then his breath had whooshed out again, making Bianca's magic useless. She could keep replaying the scene indefinitely, but everything was replayed, including his breath. But Roland looked, piercingly-and Bink had frozen.
Roland's talent was the stun gaze: one special glance and what he looked at was frozen in place, alive but immobile until released. In this manner Bink had been prevented from breathing the gas a second time, until his rigid body had been carried out.