[Xanth Content Note: Rape, Misogyny, Self-Harm]
Castle Roogna, Part 8
When we last left Xanth (er, over a year ago, sorry), the Harpy Faction (air-creatures of all descriptions) and Goblin Faction (ground-creatures) were closing in on Castle Roogna. They are not, to be clear, particularly concerned with the humans in Castle Roogna; instead, they are closing on the site through the magic of Murphy's curse, which is sort of a play on "Murphy's Law" except not really.
Dor asks King Roogna what weapons they have left, and it all has a very quaint D&D slash McGyver slash Chopped feel to it, because you have to use everything in the basket to pull out a win. They have a Pied-Piper flute that makes people follow it, a two-inch ring that anything which passes through disappears forever, and a Major Forget spell. Vadne enlarges the ring to a thin hoop despite it being outside the normal limits of her "neo" (i.e., not-up-to-sorceress level) talent because fuck any kind of consistency when it comes to Vadne.
Chapter 11 starts with the words "Zombies ahoy!" because a centaur lookout has noticed that the Zombie Master has shown up with his horde to help. The problem is that there's a huge army between the castle and the zombie horde and they were really hoping to have the Zombie Master INSIDE the castle so that he can set up his laboratory and start zombifying people. I don't really understand this, because I thought I remembered his talent to be essentially touch-based and immediate, so why he can't just carve his way through the goblin army, zombifying things as they go, is unclear. The book just sort of asserts that the goblin army is a Problem, but I mean, it's the Problem that the zombie horde was brought here to solve.
Anyway, Dor decides that he'll use the pied-piper flute to lure the armies away (but not the zombies? I guess they can't be pied-piper'd?) and then the zombie horde is safe to enter the castle so they can settle down into the business of dealing with the armies that aren't there anymore.
“I want to take the King’s flute and lure away the creatures from the vicinity of the zombies, to someplace where we can safely detonate the forget spell. That will stop the goblins from coming back here in time to interfere with the Zombie Master. Could you hold the magic hoop in such a way as to make any airborne attackers pass through it, while outrunning groundborne attacks?”
“I am a centaur!” Cedric said. Answer enough.
Murphy and Roogna object that this seems awfully dangerous, which is a weird thing to say because honestly I feel like staying at the castle is more dangerous? And then there's some moralizing from Dor, who I remind you is supposed to be a very small child. Of, like, eleven or something? I don't remember.
Dor cut him off. “If you really cared, Magician, you would abate the curse. Is your real objection that you fear this ploy can succeed?”
The enemy Magician was silent.
Anyway, enough about that when there's a sneaky woman on the prowl. Vadne offers to "lead the zombies in" which is frankly the weirdest thing ever because the castle is... pretty obvious? It's right there? In an open area? I do recall Roogna having set some traps, so maybe that's what this is in reference to, but you'd think that the goblins and harpies would have set off the worst of them at this point given that they were close enough to scale the walls. But regardless, it's a very brave offer she's making and more than Roogna bothers to do, except that we all know she's just angling to marry the next Magician who shows up.
“You’ll need someone to lead the zombies in,” Vadne said.
“Well, I thought maybe Jumper—”
“The big spider? You’d better have him with you, protecting your flank,” she said. “I will guide the zombies in.”
“That is very generous of you,” Dor said, gratified. “You can transform any creature that gets through the zombie lines. The Zombie Master himself is the one who must be protected; get as close to him as you can and—”
“I shall. Let’s get this mission going before it is too late.”
This is, of course, all very mercenary--Vadne sued for Murphy's hand, tried for Dor's, and while it's not mentioned whether she tried Roogna, you'd think she has and you'd have to think that he said no. It's entirely unclear to me why Roogna would have turned her down; he needs her help to win this war and he needs a queen if he's serious about this whole kingdom thing, so why didn't she make marriage a condition of her aid? There's a story here, but not one I would trust Anthony to write.
[UPDATE: By the end of this chapter, it's made clear that she's helped Roogna in the hope that he would marry her after in a swell of gratitude, which is not nearly mercenary enough, Vadne! You don't hope for gratitude from a man after you've given him what he wants; you force him to marry you when he needs you. You are not only a ridiculous straw-woman, you are bad at it. I am disappoint, Vadne.]
But the larger point here is that she is prowling for men, which is different from Millie's prowling for men because Millie is magically sexy and therefore desirable, whereas Vadne has enough power to be threatening to men but not enough for them to want to possess her anyway.
Anyway, Dor and Cedric the Centaur and Jumper the Spider and Vadne (who... has no mount? or a centaur of her own, but unnamed and unmentioned? who cares, she's a woman) charge out of the castle and into the fray of two armies that are literally right there, skirmishing on top of each other and also any humans who get in the way. Dor tries out his shiny new flute and it works.
He put the flute to his lips, thankful that Jumper was there to help him, so that he had his hands and attention free. He blew experimentally into the mouthpiece. The flute played an eerie, lilting, enticing melody, which floated out through the clamor of battle and brought a sudden hush. Then dwarves and gremlins, vampires and harpies, and numberless goblins swarmed after the centaurs, compelled alike by that magic music.
The flying creatures try to buzz them, but the centaur literally turns his torso around--while continuing to run in the opposite direction of his now-turned torso--and uses the golden hoop in such a way that flying enemies swoop through and vanish. So, I mean, to repeat, he's literally running at full pelt in a direction he's not facing, which is pretty amazing. I like over-the-top stupid action scenes and especially in fantasy where people can magically show off, but wow.
Oh, wait, Vadne does have a ride:
Dor saw Vadne converting those goblins that she touched to pancake disks, and her centaur was fending off the aerial creatures with his fists.
And now she can just shape-change things with a quick touch despite it being supposedly super hard for her earlier. If I were inclined to be gracious, I might say that her talent just needed a little practice (later books will even support this idea; that a talent can get rusty if under-used) and that the council judged her prematurely. Anyway, they reach the zombies and Dor tells them to cover their ears, which I mean. Even the zombies that don't have arms? Maybe it doesn't affect the dead.
Quickly they reached the zombie contingent. “Follow the woman in!” Dor cried. “I’ll lead the monsters away! Block off your ears until I’m beyond your hearing!” Yes, that would be a fine Murphy foul-up, to lure the goblins away only to lure the Zombie Master and Millie into the same forget-spell trap! But a problem anticipated was a problem largely prevented.
Then he was off, playing the magic flute again. No matter how grossly he puffed into it, the music emerged clear and sweet and haunting. And the creatures followed.
Dor has them go towards the Gap chasm, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me except that the plot demands that the Gap Chasm be hit with this forget spell. It's particularly labored here because Dor determines that the flute can be played by the wind + Jumper suggests that he and Dor drop into the chasm with his spider silk (where the goblins can't follow and supposedly Dor can handle all the flying creatures with the hoop), so why wouldn't you just plug up your ears, put the spell (which can activate itself after a countdown) and the flute on a spider-silk balloon string, and let the wind draw everyone to the spell? I don't know, logic or something.
Anyway, the centaur can't go down into the Gap Chasm, so Dor tells him to go home and rape his wife so that's nice.
“Go to Celeste,” Dor suggested. “Your job is honorably finished, here, and she’ll be glad to see you.”
“First to the warlock!” Cedric exclaimed, grinning. He made a kind of salute, then galloped off west.
I don't know what to do with the "she'll be glad to see you" when Dor knows that Celeste doesn't like Cedric and in fact cursed him without his knowledge. Either Dor is trying to pretend that everything is fine (which is rape culture) or he's being sarcastic or this is supposed to be read as... normal marital shenanigans? Like, OF COURSE your wife is going to put saltpeter in your food and OF COURSE you have to figure out her tricks and surprise her with sex she doesn't want and OF COURSE these things are all just part of a normal healthy marriage that we laugh about in our old age? I guess? It's gross.
They fling themselves into the canyon and nine people have highlighted this in my kindle version, which sort of makes me sad because it's supposed to be something pithy and clever about Murphy's law when really it's not.
The spider always thought of these things before Dor did, anticipating what could go wrong and abating it first. Thus Murphy’s curse had little power over him. That was why Jumper had taken so much time just now, despite knowing that Dor was in a desperate strait at the brink of the canyon; he had been making sure that no mistake of his would betray Dor.
And there it was, of course: the answer to the curse. Maturity. Only a careless or thoughtless person could be trapped by the curse, giving it the openings to snare him.
Like, first of all, Murphy's law is not an actual law in the sense of, like, gravity. It's a cute thing people say, for gods sake. Second of all, perfect planning isn't an antidote to Murphy's law; planning is good, sure, but things can and will still mess up. There's things you can't plan or control, etc. That's the point. The law is a combination of confirmation bias (i.e., ignoring the things that go well but noting the things that go wrong) and the usual pitfalls of a large project. No one seriously thinks it's a LAW, dammit.
Anyway, the pied-piper flute literally draws the ground-creatures off the cliff into the chasm, where they drop to their deaths. He is appalled by this (“We’re slaughtering them! That wasn’t my intent!"), which I kind of understand except that Dor honest-to-god just saw Roogna melting them into a liquid ooze earlier, and saw Vadne transforming them into stones for the castle--and there was some indication that they were still conscious at some level through the process. Honestly, in comparison to that, I feel like a sudden swift drop is a cleaner death, so this just seems like a weird time for Dor to have a crisis of conscience. Maybe it's because his hand is on the weapon this time?
Dor speaks to the spell, which tells him that it detonates when ANY voice commands it to. This is useful because Dor can tell it to count down, but all I can think is that Roogna needs to stop making magic weapons because this is irresponsible as fuck. Then he sets the spell (which is a small sphere) into a niche in the cliff and they book it. There's a bunch of description about the magic hoop and Dor thinking about adulthood and generally being bored and this part really could have been written better because it's very confusing how they've managed to maybe keep the armies gathered around the spell without falling to their deaths. I'm not sure the author visualized it very clearly.
BUT THAT'S OKAY because what's this? Why, it's a harpy carrying the spell towards them and wanting to know what this big talking ball thing is. There's no time to get away, so Dor and Jumper fling themselves into the magic hoop.
He arrived in darkness. It was pleasant, neutral. His body seemed to be suspended without feeling. There was a timelessness about him, a perpetual security. All he had to do was sleep.
You are not like the others, a thought said at him.
“Of course not,” Dor thought back. Whatever he was suspended in did not permit physical talking, because there was no motion. “I am from another time. So is my friend Jumper the spider. Who are you?”
I am the Brain Coral, keeper of the source of magic.
“The Brain Coral! I know you! You’re supposed to be animating my body!”
“Eight hundred years from now. Don’t you remember?”
I am not in a position to know about that, being as yet a creature of my own time.
I would call this kind of cute--I mean, Dor is supposed to be fairly young!--except that we have this wild inconsistency where the protagonist says and thinks super meaningful things about adulthood but has to be gently explained (again and again!) that people from the past don't have any way to know about the future he keeps expecting them to know.
Anyway, the Brain Coral explains--though I can't imagine why it cares as much as it seems to, except that Anthony does--that the Forget Spell has rendered the Gap Chasm forgotten and that's how the spell got there. I wasn't particularly interested in that mystery from the first book and honestly I don't really see how it can be as much of an imposition as people acted like it was because someone would draw a map for god's sake, but okay now we know.
Also here is some metaphysics that I don't care about but maybe you will!
Stunned, Dor realized it was true. He had caused the Gap to be forgotten by all but those people whose forgetting would be paradoxical. Such as those living adjacent to it, who would otherwise fall in and die. Their deaths would be inexplicable to their friends and relatives, leading to endless complications that would quickly neutralize the spell. Paradox was a powerful natural counterspell! But any people who had no immediate need-to-know would simply not remember the Gap. This was true in his own day— and now he knew how it had come about. He had done it, with his bumbling.
Yet if what he did here had no permanence, how could …? He couldn’t take time to ponder that now. “We have to get back to Castle Roogna. Or at least, we can’t stay here. There would be paradox when we caught up to our own time.”
So it would seem. I shall release you from my preservative fluid. The primary radiation of the spell should not affect you; the secondary may. You will not forget your personal identities and mission, but you may forget the Gap once you leave its vicinity.
“I’m pretty much immune to that anyway,” Dor said. “I’m one of the near-Gap residents. Just so long as I don’t forget the rest.”
The Brain Coral tosses them back out, but asks that they destroy the ring because I guess it doesn't like people dropping in unannounced all the time. I respect that. Then we get to see whether the plan worked.
The harpies were visible in the distance, but they paid no further attention to Dor and Jumper. They were milling about in air, trying to remember what they were doing there. Which was exactly what Dor had wanted to happen. The goblins, however, were in sadder state. They too seemed to be milling about— but they had forgotten that sharp dropoffs were hazardous to health, and were falling into the chasm at a great rate. Dor’s action had decimated the goblin horde.
So the effects of the Forget Spell are: that the Gap Chasm exists, why they are there, and not to walk off cliffs to your death. That seems kind of wildly inconsistent. How do the flying creatures remember to fly? I don't know.
Dor dropped it and went on. “I hope Cedric got clear in time. That spell was more powerful than I expected.”
“He surely did.”
Okay, I KNOW I keep harping on this, but Dor cares so much more about this guy planning to rape his wife than he does about the wife! I'm not saying what she did was right (it's not!), but the guy is openly planning to rape her and Dor is only worried about his safety!
Dor and Jumper close on the castle, and... wait, what?
The battle was not over at Castle Roogna, but it was evident that the tide had turned. As the distance from the forget-spell ground zero lengthened, the effects diminished, until here at the Castle there was little confusion— except that there were only about a third as many goblins and harpies as before, and the ramparts were manned by zombies. The Zombie Master had gotten through!
The defenders spied them, and laid down a barrage of cherry bombs to clear a path to the Castle. Even so, it was necessary to employ sword and hoop to get through, for the goblins and harpies resented strangers getting into their battle. So Dor was forced to slay again. War was hell, he thought.
("War was hell, he thought." I point you to my thoughts re: how lenient we are with male authors in contrast to lady-writers.)
How... are there any goblins and harpies here at all? There's a bunch of stuff about the Forget Spell not reaching this far, but it was never intended to! He had a pied-piper flute! Did a third of them realize to cover their ears? I'm so confused by this! Also, why in the name of all that is holy do we care that the zombies got INSIDE the castle? You do not deploy your zombie troops from INSIDE a castle, they are not archers, for gods' sake!
King Roogna himself welcomed them at the gate. “Marvelous!” he cried. “You piped half the monsters off the field and made them forget. Vadne led the Zombie Master in while the goblins were distracted by the flute, and he has been generating new zombies from the battlefield casualties ever since. The only problem is fetching them in.”
NO NO NO. You put the strongest guard on your Magician and you send him out to carve a bloody swath with his troops. Everything he touches is instantly zombified, so why does the book keep forgetting that and setting him up with a Frankenstein lab where he needs time and bodies have to be transported in to be worked on?
WAIT A MINUTE, I will get to the bottom of this.
*thirty minutes of searching my ebooks*
Okay, this is just... so inconsistent. Here is Jonathan the Zombie Master in an earlier chapter in which he claims he needs "a few minutes" and "some effort" for each zombie:
“Now I must work,” the Zombie Master said. “Dor, if you will supervise the carrying of bodies to my laboratory, I will render them into loyal zombies. It will require a few minutes and some effort for each, so you need not hurry— but the faster we perform, the stronger the zombies will be. Also, we shall need to march with-in a day, to reach King Roogna’s castle in time to be of service.”
Here he is before that, talking about how he first discovered his talent, which makes it seem much more instantaneous:
Then one day I found a dead flying frog, and was sorry for it, and tried to will it back to life, and—”
“The first zombie!” Millie exclaimed.
But, hey, okay, he could have shortened the story a little for convenience. But then you have this passage in Night Mare, which is honestly much more how I would have expected the Zombie Master to use his powers in the Castle Roogna fight:
The next Nextwaver leaped across the opening crevice in the bridge—only to be met by the Zombie Master’s own sword. Stabbed neatly through the heart, he died, falling headlong on the ground.
The Zombie Master bent to touch the dead man—and this Mundane revived. He stood up, blood dripping from his chest. “Master!” he rasped.
“Guard this bridge,” the Zombie Master ordered him. “Let no living creature pass.”
The new zombie faced the Chasm, sword in hand, while Chet continued chopping. As the next Mundane came across, the zombie drove fiercely at him with that sword.
“Hey!” the next one cried. “You’re on our side!”
“No more,” the zombie Mundane grunted, and slashed again. The other warrior danced aside, startled—and stepped off the bridge.
So I don't know. I'm going to point to this if I ever make a consistency error in my own series. They're easy enough to make, especially when talking about the logistics of magic. I'll let it pass, since I'm mostly here to criticize the rape culture stuff.
Speaking of, what is that vixen Vadne up to?
Millie was there, wan and disheveled, but she looked up with a smile when Dor entered. “Oh, you’re safe, Dor! I was so worried!”
“Worry for your fiancé,” he said shortly. “He’s doing the work.”
“He certainly is,” Vadne said. She was moving the bodies into position for him by converting them to great balls that were easily rolled, then returning them to their regular shapes. As a result, he was evidently manufacturing zombies at triple the rate he had at his own castle. Time was consumed mainly in the processing, not the actual conversion. “He’s making an army to defend this Castle!”
“Dor’s doing a lot too!” Millie said stoutly.
Flattered despite himself, Dor realized that Millie still had feeling for him, and still might— But he had to suppress that.
Ah, those women. Always fighting over men. Or something. I'm honestly not sure why Millie took offense to what Vadne said, which I would normally interpret as "yessir, he sure IS working", and since Dor started it I'm not sure why Millie doesn't argue with HIM ("YOU'RE doing a lot too!") instead of with Vadne but women, amiright? Then the Zombie Master is surprised to learn that Vadne is not a sorceress and says that HE would have classed her as such and she glows at him and ya'll we can see the trouble coming like a speeding train.
Coming back to loose ends, Dor feels bored and only now turns his mind to whether the underlying cause of the harpy/goblin war could be fixed. He pops his head into the Brain Coral ring (that he promised to destroy but hasn't) and asks if they have a male harpy in storage. Happily, they do and the harpy is released to Dor. Taking a page from Lewis' writing school, the harpy speaks in Ye Olde Snotty British, but the two of them eventually agree that Dor is a prince and worthy of talking to the prince he just rescued (GAWD) and Dor asks him to swear (a) only to mate with harpies and (b) to give the goblins the counterspell to the "make the girls marry the awful ones" curse.
Also, we need to feel sorry for the asshole who is literally killing people with his magic:
“You may manage to free the harpy,” Murphy said grimly. “But my curse will have its impact elsewhere. You have not prevailed.” But he looked tired; his talent was evidently under severe strain. No single Magician, however gifted, could stand forever against the power of three. Dor was almost sorry for him.
Hundreds of thousands of people died today, but look at his sad face!
They take the male harpy outside and he's greeted with glee by the ladies and the harpies all retire from the battlefield, and we get this paragraph because even zombies in Xanth have lusty thoughts I guess:
Then Heavenly Helen spread her pretty wings and was away, with all males on the parapet staring after her, and even a few of the healthier zombies were admiring her form. There were covert glances at Dor, as people wondered what he had done to attract the attention of so remarkable a creature.
The goblins do not leave the battlefield because the counterspell isn't as immediately evident and also it doesn't seem like anyone even told them what was happening, because... why would you, I guess? I feel like I'd try to talk to them about the situation, but the humans seem not to consider it. Anyway, Roogna is pretty confident that they can hold off the goblins now--the harpies have left, so the goblins have no one to fight except the humans (which I guess they will continue to do, because Murphy's curse), but on the other hand they have zombies, so everyone is feeling pretty good.
They all go to sleep and then have a sullen breakfast.
“Frankly I think we have it in hand,” the King said. “Will you not relinquish with grace, Murphy?”
“There remains yet one aspect of the curse,” Murphy said. “Should it fail, then I am done, and will retire. But I must hold on until it manifests.”
“Fair enough,” Roogna said.
I hate these two, I really do. The ONLY way I would accept this "affable evil" bullshit is if they were, like, previous lovers or something. And then only because I can drown my contempt in sweet sexy angst. But, no, they're just honorable enemies and I'm sorry but I can't accept that there's "honor" in serving a non-poisoned breakfast to a mass murderer who is still planning more mass murders to commit in the afternoon. I do hold Roogna responsible for much of the blood on Murphy's hands, because he's not opposing him! Roogna is acting as a reactionary force only, while ignoring the literal root cause sitting at his breakfast table.
Everyone then farts about with philosophy on whether Dor was useful and whether he can change his own past. Rather than, I suppose, talking about the dead bodies out the window that Murphy slaughtered, or the liquid ooze out the other window that is the goblin bodies Roogna decimated, or the stones in the nearby wall that are the squirming transmogrified bodies of goblins that Vadne created.
Jonathan comes down and asks after Millie.
The Zombie Master came in. Vadne perked up. “Come sit by me,” she invited.
But he was not being sociable. “Where is Millie the maid, my fiancée?”
The others exchanged perplexed glances. “I assumed she was with you,” Dor said.
“No. I worked late last night, and it would not be meet for such as she to keep my company unchaperoned. I sent her to bed.”
“You didn’t do that at your own castle,” Dor pointed out.
“We were not then engaged. After the betrothal, we kept company only in company.”
I will note that both Dor and the Zombie Master know that Millie is fated to die soon, which is partly why Jonathan is so anxious. They try to use a magic mirror to locate Millie, and the mirror breaks.
The Zombie Master stared at it. “Murphy’s curse!” he exclaimed. “Why should it prevent us from locating the maid?” He turned angrily on Murphy.
Magician Murphy spread his hands. “I do not know, sir. I assure you I have no onus against your fiancée. She strikes me as a most appealing young woman.”
“She strikes everyone that way,” Vadne said. “Her talent is—”
“Do not denigrate her to me!” the Zombie Master shouted. “It was only in gratitude to her that I agreed to soil my hands with politics! If anything happens to her—”
He broke off, and there was a pregnant silence. Suddenly the nature of the final curse was coming clear to them all. Without Millie, the Zombie Master had no reason to support the King, and Castle Roogna would then lose its major defensive force. Anything could happen to further interrupt its construction— and would. Murphy would win.
Yet the harpies and goblins were gone, Dor thought. Did anything remain that could really threaten the Castle? And he realized with horror that one thing did: the zombies themselves. They now controlled Castle Roogna. If they turned against the King—
“It seems your curse has struck with extreme precision,” King Roogna said, evidently recognizing the implication. The issue was indeed in doubt! “We must find Millie quickly, and I fear that will not be easy.”
Haha, oh my god, they MUST FIND MILLIE because otherwise MURPHY MIGHT WIN and definitely not because Millie is a fucking person who is in fucking danger from the fucking asshole who is standing right fucking there JUST STAB HIM WITH THE BUTTER KNIVES.
“It was my chair that jolted the mirror,” Dor said, stricken. “It’s my fault!”
“Do not blame yourself,” Murphy said. “The curse strikes in the readiest manner, much as water seeks the lowest channel. You have simply been used.”
I... I can't cope with the fact that everyone is seeking to lay blame on literally anything or anyone other than the guy ACTIVELY MAINTAINING THIS CURSE. He could drop this curse at any time. In a moment. On a whim. Hell, I'm pretty sure he can drop it and then put it back up once Millie is safe. All the magic opposing them is coming from him and he doesn't need to keep doing it!
What's more is, he's lost. He knows he's lost. He knows now that the only way he will pull out a "win" here is if he's willing to stand by and pay a price which is the death of a girl he likes (or is sexually attracted to, which is the same thing in Xanth). And he still does do it. And no one blames him even a tiny microscopic bit.
Anyway, Dor barges around asking inanimate objects where they last saw Millie. They trace her to the bathroom. Vadne doesn't want them to question the bathroom because decency. They then quickly determine that Vadne and Millie were in the room alone together, the lights were put out, and then Millie vanished.
Now, ALLOW ME TO REGISTER A COMPLAINT, because Vadne then walked the fuck out of that bathroom with Millie transmogrified into a book that she carried out in her arms. Or under her skirts, I don't know. But it doesn't occur to anyone to, say, question the walls and trace where Vadne went and what she did. It doesn't occur to anyone to question her clothes, despite the fact that "familiar" objects are canonically more observant and chatty. Earlier in this book, Dor got a centaur's harness to spill the beans about an impotency spell, but no one thinks to ask Vadne's dress what she did with Millie!
Something something Murphy's curse, I know. So convenient much wow.
I mean, authorially I am sympathetic here because Dor has a power that should make him an information god. Keeping a secret from him should be next to impossible. And earlier books had already established Millie's book-transformation and so Anthony was kind of in a bind here. "They didn't think about it because Murphy's curse" is honestly not the worst dodge I've ever seen. But it grates on me a little, because I feel like there are other ways this could have been handled. And since I'm here to shine light, not throw shade, let's think about this for a minute. How could we do this in a way that isn't Stupid Ball + Sexist?
How about this? The goblins breached a wall in the night. Maybe the women's bathroom, maybe the library. (Imagine women wanting to read rather than simply being big walking privates that need to do pees and sex and things!) To protect Millie, Vadne turns her into a book and stashes her in the bookshelf before being killed by the goblins.
Okay, that's sad! No more Vadne. And since Anthony was planning to put Vadne and Murphy in storage and make them kiss later, that kinda sucks for him. He'd have to go back, maybe, and put in another female character for Murphy to kiss instead, or work out a way for Vadne to be incapacitated rather than killed. Maybe she was so badly wounded that they had to put her in the Brain Coral storage. Something a healing potion can't fix, because Murphy's law.
Then we'd have Millie turned into a book but for a reason that isn't sexy jealous cat-fight. And we'd have Millie remain un-fixed because Vadne isn't here to turn her back. Rather than folks just immediately giving up and not bothering to find Millie or convince Vadne. Because that is what is about to happen.
“I only did it for you,” she said, bluffing it out. “She didn’t love you anyway; she loved Dor. And she’s just a garden-variety maid, not a Magician-caliber talent. You need a—”
“She is my betrothed!” the Zombie Master cried, his aspect wild. Dor echoed the man’s passion within himself. The Zombie Master did love her— as Dor did. “What did you do with her, wretch?”
“I put her where you will never find her!” Vadne flared.
“This is murder,” King Roogna said grimly.
“No it isn’t!” Vadne cried. “I didn’t kill her. I just— changed her.”
“We’ll rip out the whole sump to find her!” the King cried.
“And if you do,” Vadne said, “what will you do then? Without me you can’t change her back to her stupid sex-appeal form.”
“Neo-Sorceress,” King Roogna said grimly. “We are mindful of your considerable assistance in the recent campaign. We do not relish showing you disfavor.”
“Oh, pooh!” she said. “I only helped you because Murphy wouldn’t have me, and I wanted to marry a Magician.”
“You have chosen unwisely. If you do not change the maid back, we shall have to execute you.”
She was taken aback, but remained defiant. “Then you’ll never get her changed, because talents never repeat.”
“But they do overlap,” Roogna said.
“In the course of decades or centuries! The only way you can save her is to deal on my terms.”
“What are your terms?” the King asked, his eyes narrow.
“Let Dor marry Millie. She likes him better anyway, the stupid slut. I’ll take the Zombie Master.”
"They do overlap" says the man whose actual talent is shaping raw magic spells into whatever spells he wants them to be. Like, iunno, a Turn Someone Back Into Their Human Form spell.
“Never!” the Zombie Master cried, his hands clenching.
Vadne faced him. “Why force on her a marriage with a man she doesn’t love?” she demanded.
That shook him. “In time she would—” “How much time? Twenty years, when she’s no longer so sweet and young? Two hundred? I love you now!”
The Zombie Master looked at Dor. His face was tight with emotional pain, but his voice was steady. “Sir, there is some truth in what she says. I was always aware that Millie— if you had—” He choked off, then forced himself to continue. “I would prefer to see Millie married to you, than locked in some hideous transformation. If you—”
And here's where I hate this Lawful nonsense and I show my Chaotic side because seriously HOW HARD IS IT to just "okay, you know what, fine," and marry this woman and then stab her in the heart two seconds after Millie is safely restored? Apparently I am a very bloodthirsty person when it comes to my loved ones but I'm honestly okay with that. You turn my husband into a book, you lose your right to both honesty and life in my view. Ya'll been warned.
“No,” Dor said, knowing he was forcing Millie to undergo the full throes of ghosthood. Eight centuries long— and what reward awaited her there? Nursemaid to a little boy! Association with a zombie! “She goes to her betrothed— or to no one.”
“But I am her betrothed!” the Zombie Master cried. “I love her— and because I love her, I yield her to you! I would do anything rather than permit her to suffer!”
“True love,” King Roogna said. “It becomes you, sir.”
“I’m sorry,” Dor said. He understood now that his love for Millie was less, because he chose to let her suffer. He was knowingly inflicting terrible grief upon them all. Yet the alternative was the sacrifice of what they had all fought to save, deviously but certainly. He had no choice. “What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong. I—” He spread his hands, unable to formulate his thought.
The Zombie Master gazed somberly at him. “I believe I understand.” Then, surprisingly, he offered his hand.
Ah, yes, we are all very Honorable Men here, the four of us. *smells own farts*
Roogna puts Vadne in the hoop (that Dor promised to destroy but hasn't) (despite being reminded by the Brain Coral once this morning already, during the search for Millie) (but Honor) (we are all very Honorable) (we keep our promises even if it means a girl will die) (but we don't keep promises to destroy hoop-rings) (*smells farts*) (ahhhh, so nice, it's like roses) and says that in time she will agree to restore Millie. The Zombie Master says not to bother and commands his zombies to guard Castle Roogna for eternity before shuffling off.
“Then I have lost,” Murphy said. “My curse worked, but has been overwhelmed by the Zombie Master’s loyalty. I cannot overcome the zombies.” He, too, walked away.
Murphy could, of course, apply his considerable curse to "all who would oppose restoration of Millie the Maid" but haha what even is practical applications of magic.
Then they go about their day as usual (which... I have no idea what that would even look like) and in the process they find a book on a dumbwaiter in the library and Dor puts it on a shelf and of course it's Millie but he doesn't realize that. And then they find that the Zombie Master has committed suicide and zombified himself in the process. He shuffles off and Dor is sad.
Jumper then gives Roogna a "puzzle" to assemble which is the magic tapestry they arrived through (and was given to him by the Zombie Master? because he likes... magic... puzzle... tapestries? Don't ask ME, I don't know. I think it was briefly mentioned as a bonding exercise with Millie and the rest of them earlier in the book. I don't care.) and then Dor gives Roogna the Zombie Restoration Potion he came back in time to acquire, and Roogna promises to hide the potion in the tapestry because he can do whatever the fuck he wants with magic stuff.
Dor and Jumper say goodbye because when they go Back To The Future, Dor will be a little boy and Jumper will be dead in three months and it's all very Charlotte's Web sad. Then they leap into space and the longest chapter in the world finally ends.