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       As the stun abated, he had found himself in his mother's arms. "Oh my baby!" she cried, cradling his head against her bosom. "Did they hurt you?"

       Bink came to an abrupt stop by the bed of sponge, his face flushing even now with the keen embarrassment of the memory. Had she had to do that? Certainly she had saved him from an early death-but he had been the laughingstock of the village for an interminable time thereafter. Everywhere he went, kids exclaimed "My baby!" in falsetto, and sniggered. He had his life-at the expense of his pride. Yet he knew he could not blame his parents.

       He had blamed Jama and Zink and Potipher. Bink had no magic, but, perhaps for that reason, he was the huskiest boy in the village. He had had to fight as long as he could remember. He was not especially well coordinated, but he had a lot of raw power. He had gone after Jama privately and demonstrated convincingly that the fist was swifter than the magic sword. Then Zink, and finally Potipher; Bink had hurled him into his own gas cloud, forcing him to dissolve it very suddenly. Those three had not sniggered at Bink thereafter; in fact, they tended to avoid him-which was why they had scattered when he charged the tree. Together they could have overcome him: but they had been well conditioned by those separate encounters.

       Bink smiled, his embarrassment replaced by grim pleasure. Perhaps his manner of dealing with the situation had been immature, but there had been a lot of satisfaction in it. Down underneath he knew it had been his irritation at his mother that motivated him, displaced to people like Jama-but he did not regret it. He did love his mother, after all.

       But in the end his only chance to redeem himself had been to find his own magic talent, a good strong one like that of his father, Roland. So no one would dare to tease him or laugh at him or baby him: ever again. So that pure shame would not drive him from Xanth. And that had never happened. He was known contemptuously as the "Spell-less Wonder."

       He stooped to gather several good, strong sponges. These would abate Justin Tree's discomfort, for that was their magic: they absorbed agony and spread a healing comfort. A number of plants and animals-he was not quite sure in which category the sponges fit-had similar properties. The advantage of the sponges was that they were mobile; plucking them would not kill them. They were tough; they had migrated from the water when the corals did, and now thrived on land. Probably their magic healing properties had been developed to facilitate their lives in the new medium. Or maybe before the migration, since coral was cutting stuff.

       Talents tended to run in schools, with one overlapping another; thus many variants of each type of magic showed up in the plant and animal kingdoms. But among people, magic varied extremely widely. It seemed that individual personality had more to do with it than heredity, though the strongest magic tended to turn up in particular family lines. As if strength of magic was hereditary, while type of magic was environmental. Yet there were other factors-

       Bink could fit a lot of reflection into a passing moment. If reflection were magic, he'd be a Magician. But right now he'd better concentrate on what he was doing, or he'd be in trouble.

       Dusk was intensifying. Dismal shapes were rising out of the forest, hovering as if seeking prey. Eyeless and formless, they nevertheless conducted themselves with a disquieting awareness, orienting on Bink-or seeming to. More magic was unexplained than was safely catalogued. A will-o'-the-wisp caught Bink's nervous eye. He started to follow the half-glimpsed light, then abruptly caught himself. The lure of the wisp was sheer mischief. It would lead him into the wilderness and lose him there, prey to the hostile magic of the unknown. One of Bink's childhood friends had followed the wisp and never returned. Warning enough!

       Night transformed Xanth. Regions like this one that were innocent by day became horrors as the sun sneaked down. Specters and shades came out, questing for their ghastly satisfactions, and occasionally a zombie ripped free of its grave and marched clumsily about. No sensible person slept outdoors, and every house in the village had repulsion spells against the supernatural. Bink did not dare use the shortcut back to Justin Tree; he would have to go the long way, following the looping but magically protected trails. This was not timidity but necessity.

       He ran-not from fear, for there was no real danger on this charmed route, and he knew the paths too well to stray accidentally from them, but in order to reach Justin more swiftly. Justin's flesh was wood, but it hurt every bit as much as normal flesh. How anyone could be so crass as to chop at Justin Tree

       Bink passed a field of sea oats, hearing the pleasant swish and gurgle of their oceanic tides. When harvested, they made excellent foamy broth, except that it tended to be rather salty. The bowls could only be filled half-way; otherwise the broth's continuing sea waves slopped over.

       He remembered the wild oats he had planted as an adolescent. Sea oats were restless, but their cousins the wild oats were hyperactive. They had fought him savagely, their stems slashing across his wrists as he tried to harvest a ripe ear. He had gotten it, but had been uncomfortably scratched and abraded before getting clear of the patch.

       He had planted those few wild seeds in a secret plot behind his house, and watered them every day, the natural way. He had guarded the bad-tempered shoots from all harm, his anticipation growing. What an adventure for a teenaged male! Until his mother, Bianca had discovered the plot. Alas, she had recognized the species instantly.

       There had been a prompt family hassle. "How could you?" Bianca demanded, her face flaming. But Roland had labored to suppress his admiring smile. "Sowing wild oats!" he murmured. "The lad's growing up."

       "Now, Roland, you know that-"

       "Dear, it isn't as if there's any real harm in it."

       "No harm!" she exclaimed indignantly.

       "It is a perfectly natural urge for a young man-" But her furious expression had halted Bink's father, who feared nothing in Xanth but was normally a peaceable man. Roland sighed and turned to Bink. "I gather you do know what you were doing, son?"

       Bink felt excruciatingly defensive. "Well-yes. The nymph of the oats-"

       "Bink!" Bianca snapped warningly. He had never seen her so angry before.

       Roland held up his hands, making peace. "Dear-why don't you let us work this out, man-to-man? The boy's got a right."

       And so Roland had betrayed his own bias; when his man-to-man chat was with Bink, it was with a boy.

       Without another word, Bianca had stalked out of the house.

       Roland turned to Bink, shaking his head in a gesture that was only nominally negative. Roland was a powerful, handsome man, and he had a special way with gestures. "Genuine wild oats, culled thrashing from the stem, sown by the full moon, watered with your own urine?" he inquired frankly, and Bink nodded, his face at half heat. "So that when the plants mature, and the oat nymph manifests, she will be bound to you, the fertilizer figure?"

       Bink nodded grimly.

       "Son, believe me, I comprehend the attraction; I sowed wild oats myself when I was your age. Got me a nymph, too, with flowing green hair and a body like the great outdoors-but I had forgotten about the special watering, and so she escaped me. I never saw anything so lovely in my life-except your mother, of course."

       Roland had sown wild oats? Bink had never imagined such a thing. He remained silent, afraid of what was coming.

       "I made the mistake of confessing about the oats to Bianca," Roland continued. "I fear she became somewhat sensitized on the subject, and you caught the brunt. These things happen."