Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Five Portraits


Five Portraits (2014)
This novel continues on from “Board Stiff”, where the group of questers search for, and eventually find, the antidote to the anti-pun virus.  Now they are travelling around, destroying the virus, and reseeding the locations with new puns.

There are three couples in the group: Kandy and Ease, Tiara and Mitch, and Astrid and Art.

At various times in the story, Astrid states that she is married, and refers to Art as her husband, but in fact she is not married; the three couples marry towards the end of the story.

The group also includes Demoness Metria, Com Pewter (or Pewter) in android form, and a woman called Merge. (Metria is married, but spends a lot of time away from home.  Pewter has a machine partner Com Passion, who is not present.)

In “Board Stiff”, the questers had located five sisters, who had merged to form the woman Merge.  Merge holds an urn, which is actually a portal to a virtually unlimited supply of the antidote to the pun virus.

During their mission, the group’s magical abilities have become enhanced, presumably because Demon Xanth is assisting them in their mission, because he doesn’t want his land messed up by the virus.

This story centres on Astrid Basilisk, who is now able to change between her human and basilisk forms. But in either form she still has a deadly stare, and poisonous ambiance. This is convenient for fighting enemies, but otherwise she wears dark glasses, and tells people to hold their breath when they come close to her.

[In our world, basilisks and cockatrices are mythical creatures, with different histories, but which came to be regarded as the same species.  They appear several times in the Xanth series, not always with consistent treatment.  In this story they are the same species, but “basilisk” is used for the female and “cockatrice” for the male.]

Interaction with Trolls
As the story starts, Astrid heads out early to hunt for the pun virus and apply the antidote.  All members of the group carry containers of the antidote, provided by Merge.

She encounters a woman, kneeling on the ground before a gravestone.  It is Jenny Elf (who has appeared in various previous stories).  Jenny tells Astrid it is the grave of her youngest daughter, Jone.  A prophecy had said that Jone would help save Xanth from destruction, but instead she had died in a horrible accident.

Jenny says there is something familiar about Astrid, but Astrid doesn’t think they have met before.  (The true significance of this encounter is revealed at the end of the story, but I haven’t included it in this review.)  Jenny’s husband, a werewolf, arrives in wolf form, and Jenny rides him away.

Astrid follows a path which leads to a glade.  A troll appears and gives his name as Truculant.  There are various kinds of trolls: some are noble, some build highways and some are bad news.  Truculant soon reveals himself to be bad news: he intends to rape and eat Astrid, and then he will do the same to the other members of her party.

He attacks her, knocking her glasses off, and looking into her eyes.  And of course he drops dead.

Astrid hunts around and finds a cave where Truculant had imprisoned three goblin girls.  The cave is barred and locked.  Ginger, one of the goblins, tells her that only Truculant could open the lock.

Astrid calls Metria, who appears.  But Metria can’t open the lock and goes to get Pewter.  Tiara arrives; with her floating hair, and fins which she attaches to her arms and legs, she has the ability to swim through the air.  She removes a computer chip from her backpack: it expands into Pewter’s android form.  Pewter examines the lock: it is protected by a magnetic shield; the shield can be eliminated by a bash by a nonmetallic object.  Tiara takes off to get Ease and Kandy.

Ginger tells them Truculant had a deal with the more civilised trollway-building trolls.  Whenever they turned up, the remaining captives would be turned over to them to become sex-slaves. (So “civilised” is a relative term.) They had been hoping this would happen rather than being eaten by Truculant.

Then three trollway trolls turn up.  Their leader is Truman.  They insist that they are entitled to the captives.  Astrid disagrees, and Pewter backs her up.  But a fight between three trolls on one side, and a basilisk and a reality-changing machine on the other, would have no certain outcome.  Pewter proposes a captive exchange with the goblin mound, who have troll captives of their own.  They declare a truce.

So, with Astrid in his backpack, Truman goes to the goblin mound and proposes the exchange.  This is reinforced by Astrid’s presence in basilisk form.  The goblins agree.  Truman and Astrid return to the cave.

Tiara returns from the group’s camp, carrying Ease and his board.  At Pewter’s instruction, he hits the lock with the board, breaking the magnetic shell.  The board transforms into Kandy; from the end of “Board Stiff” she has been able to transform into the board and back whenever she wishes.

It will now take some time for Pewter to pick the lock.  Truman wonders how a basilisk came to associate with the others in the group.  So Astrid tells her story.

Astrid’s Backstory
Astrid was the daughter of anonymous parents.  Basilisks and cockatrices hate all other creatures including their own kind.  She was able to defend herself, as all basilisks can, with her deadly stare.  And other creatures generally avoided her.

But she was not satisfied with her life.  She noticed that, in contrast to basilisks and cockatrices, other creatures associated with others of their own kind, often as male/female pairs, on an ongoing basis.

She started secretly observing humans, and learnt their language.  They would talk about the Good Magician Humfrey, who would answer any question, in exchange for a year’s service or the equivalent.  She decided to go and ask him about her problem.

She set off beside the enchanted path, (her kind was excluded from actually walking on the path,) and came to the Good Magician’s Castle.  There she met Wira, the Good Magician’s daughter-in-law, who led her in to see the Magician.

Humfrey explained that he could change her form to human, but she would still retain her nature as a basilisk.  She would still have a deadly stare and her poisonous ambiance.

Then he told her she had a soul.  A night mare had been transporting a soul to the dream realm and had dropped it, and it had fallen on her when she was sleeping.  This was the reason she had been dissatisfied with her life.  The soul must have accepted her because she had potential for it to fulfill its full flowering.

Wira escorted her to MareAnne, Humfrey’s Designated Wife of the Month, who gave her a potion.  Astrid drank it and transformed into a human.  After this she spent time in the castle getting used to human ways of doing things.

MareAnne told her that Humfrey had said Astrid would need three best friends to fulfill her mission in life.  MareAnne was the first.

Then one night MareAnne came to her with a mission.  A young man (Ease) was coming to the castle who would be going on a dangerous mission.  Astrid was to be his bodyguard.  The man had a female companion (Kandy) whom he did not know about, because she was disguised as a board.  But at night, when Ease was asleep, she reverted to human form.  Kandy could become her friend.  The story then continues as told in “Board Stiff”.  Astrid joined the quest to eliminate the pun virus.  And Kandy became the second of her best friends.

There is another thing Astrid remembers.  The Good Magician had been reassembling his Book of Lost Answers, and ended up with an Answer without a Question.  It was “Five Portraits”.  Maybe this relates to Astrid’s boyfriend Art, who is an artist, and the fact that there are five beautiful women in the group.  Art intends to paint them all sometime.

Meanwhile Pewter has picked the lock and released the goblin girls.  After this the captive exchange goes ahead smoothly.

Friendship with Fornax
Back at the camp, Kandy gets a message from Demoness Fornax.  (In “Board Stiff”, Kandy had agreed to become Fornax’s representative to the local Demons, in exchange for Fornax saving Astrid’s life.)  Kandy comes to Astrid and tells her Fornax had wanted to become her (Kandy’s) friend.  But Kandy believes that this would be a conflict of interest; Kandy must be very objective in her dealings with Demons.  She had suggested instead that Fornax might become Astrid’s friend.

Astrid decides to give it a try.  She says Fornax’s name, and Fornax appears, as a human woman.  Fornax takes her hand, and they go flying through the sky, until they reach the crescent moon, where they land.  Fornax explains that since she is a Demoness of antimatter, the form Astrid sees is a simulacrum, crafted from local matter.  Fornax admires the fact that Astrid has a soul, and perhaps would like one of her own.  She tells how (in “Jumper Cable”) Jumper Spider had acquired a soul by associating with several companions. He then married Demoness Eris, so she shared his soul.  Maybe something similar could happen to Fornax, through her association with Astrid.  But there is another reason Fornax wants to be Astrid’s friend: loneliness.

They wonder how they should go about becoming friends.  Astrid has Kandy and MareAnne as best friends, but in her case, the other women had led the way.  Maybe she can ask Kandy for advice.

But Fornax tells her not to.  Kandy is in the process of negotiating a Demon Wager, which would cause a conflict of interest.  The Wager is about the possible destruction of the Land of Xanth in 50 years time.  Fornax is betting that it will be destroyed.  (Astrid of course is a bit upset at the possibility.)

Astrid suggests that they talk to Jumper and Eris about their mortal/Demon relationship.  Fornax takes her hand and they fly through space (taking the scenic route), eventually to end up at Eris’s palace. [In previous books, Eris’s palace was located underground in Xanth.  But Eris has her own realm, the Dwarf Planet Eris, so maybe her palace is now located there.  This would explain the traveling through space.]  Astrid and Fornax explain the situation to Eris and Jumper.

But Jumper and Eris say that their relationship is one of lovers rather than friends.  They suggest that Astrid and Fornax talk to Wenda Woodwife, who is a friend to both Jumper and Eris.  (Wenda appeared previously in “Jumper Cable”, “Knot Gneiss” and “Esrever Doom”.  She is married to Prince Charming, so she is a princess.)

So Astrid and Fornax fly through space again, and come to Wenda’s palace, where Wenda is in a playground surrounded by a whole bunch of children.  Astrid explains why they are here.

[Wenda is described as being in her original woodwife form, with a hollow body, but no reason is given for this: I think this is a mistake by the author.  Wenda had gone through a lot to obtain and then regain her real nymphly body in “Jumper Cable” and “Knot Gneiss”, and she still had her complete body in “Esrever Doom”.]

Wenda needs something to divert the children, and Fornax conjures up a merry-go-round made of ice cream and candy.  The children flock to it.

Wenda tells Astrid and Fornax that friendship occurs when people do things together.  She gives the example of looking after children.  Astrid wonders how Wenda has had so many children in the 6 years she has been married.  Wenda explains that they are not her own; she is unable to have children; she adopts foundlings who need a home.  But she can’t take any more at the moment.

Astrid wonders if they could locate some foundling children and find homes for them.  Astrid and Fornax depart from Wenda’s palace.  Fornax suggests that there would be some orphans when Xanth is destroyed in the future.  But, says Astrid, time travel is impossible because of the paradox.

Fornax tells her that long ago Eris had a fling with a Demon, and had a daughter called Dysnomia, whose power is Lawlessness.  Dysnomia may be able to overcome the laws of time travel and paradox.

They return to Eris’s palace.  Astrid explains their idea; Eris snaps her fingers and Demoness Dysnomia appears.  Astrid explains to Dysnomia what they want to do.  Dysnomia and Fornax will have to work out the details.  Astrid will need the support of her friends in the virus-fighting team, to help look after the children.  Fornax returns her to the camp.

Meanwhile Mitch has found a location with an outbreak of the pun virus.  The team goes there.  All the puns have been reduced to smelly gunk throughout the valley.

But now because the virus infestation is so extensive, Merge splits into the five sisters, named according to the colour of their hair: Brown, Black, Red, Yellow and light Blue.  They each have an urn.  The team spreads out, pouring the antidote on the gunk, which turns to dust.

Pewter orders a fresh supply of puns to reseed the area.  The team washes up by pouring the antidote over themselves.  A roc flies overhead and drops the package of puns. The team scatters them throughout the valley.

Astrid tells the others about the proposed plan to bring children from the future.  They discuss it and agree to help care for the children.

Rescuing children from another universe
Astrid says Fornax’s name, and Fornax appears, and flies her to the troll glade, which is where Astrid had proposed they go to collect the children.  Fornax tells Astrid that Dysnomia has decided the paradox associated with time travel is too risky.  They will instead travel to a parallel universe.

There are an infinite number of alternative universes.  Fornax describes how Surprise Golem had travelled to another universe (in “Stork Naked”). [In that book the term “alternative realities” is used, but since Fornax equates them, they are obviously different terms for the same things.]  Some of the universes are shifted in time relative to Astrid’s universe, so there is a series of universes, each shifted one second from the universe next to it.  So by travelling through this series, it is possible to get to a universe whose setting is 50 years later than Astrid’s universe.

Senior Demons, such as Fornax and Dysnomia, exist across all universes: they only need to focus their attention on a particular universe to be present there.  So it is not difficult for Fornax and Dysnomia to travel to another universe.  But they need to take Astrid with them; only when she touches the children will the Demonesses be able to return them to Astrid’s universe.  This is a risky process.  But Astrid agrees.

Fornax and Dysnomia hold Astrid’s hands, and the world appears to flicker as they travel through the universes.  They speed up and appear to be travelling forward in time.  Finally they come to a stop.

There is a cable stretched across the glade.  Fornax says it is a cable for cars, which not only stretches from glade to glade, but also between alternative versions of Xanth.  Families are sending their children in the cable cars, hoping to transport them beyond the region of destruction.  But this will not work; the destruction will catch up with the cars faster than they can travel.

A series of cars arrive on the cable, each containing a child.  Each child gets out and joins the group.  They are:

  • Firenze, a 10-year-old boy. He tends to lose his temper, and when he does, fireworks fly out of his head. This is his magic talent.
  • Squid, a visitor from another planet, a moctopus: an-octopus-like creature with tentacles. She is able to shape herself into various forms, and change colour: she is currently in the form of a 6-year-old girl.
  • Santo, an 8-year-old boy. His talent is creating holes.
  • Win, a 5-year-old girl, with windblown hair. Her talent is always to have the wind at her back.
  • Myst, a 4-year-old girl, whose talent is that she can transform into mist.

Dysnomia tells Astrid they must go now.  The rules she had overcome are fighting back.

Astrid and the children cluster together, with the Demonesses enclosing them, and they travel back through the alternative universes, and arrive back in the glade in Astrid’s universe.  Dysnomia departs.

Fornax is about to transport them back to the camp, but the children say there is something they need to do first.

While they had been huddled together, the children had felt close to each other. They had realised that when they were touching they could sense whether a particular decision was right or wrong.  (This activity is referred to as “communing”.)  They need to ensure they can always come together if necessary.

Now they join hands in a circle, come to a decision, and head off in a particular direction, with Astrid and Fornax trailing behind.

Astrid asks Fornax if she has other things she needs to do.  Fornax explains that she is able to do many things at the same time.  She is currently supervising Kandy’s negotiations with the Demons, reviewing the upkeep of her palace in the Fornax Galaxy and fending off the amorous advances by the Demon Nemesis.  (Since Nemesis associates with Dark Matter, he has no problem with interacting with Fornax, who associates with anti-matter.)

They all come to a playground.  Fornax detects that there is a significant amount of magic associated with it.  The children play on the playground equipment.  Astrid and Fornax join in by riding on the merry-go-round.

Firenze explains that they can take the playground with them. The children run to the edges, and push them towards the centre.  The equipment folds down onto the surface as the playground is folded up.  The playground ends up very small, in the form of a matchbox.  Santo puts it in his pocket.  They can restore the playground by unfolding it.  But then Santo remembers something; he takes the matchbox out again and takes matches out of the box.  He gives one to each of the children, and keeps one for himself.  The matches do not produce fire; instead, when one of the children strikes a match, the child will be transported to the matchbox (which is the playground).  This way the children can come together again if they are apart.

But the children realise there is something more about the playground.  They join hands in a circle again.

What they discover is a shock.  The Xanth of this universe is going to be destroyed, just like the one they came from.  But the playground can help them save it.  If they do their circle in the playground, it will enhance their ability and they will get better guidance.  But the Playground expects something in return; they have to perform a play in it each time they want its magic.

Now Fornax transports them all back to the camp, and then departs.  Astrid introduces the children to the members of the virus-fighting team.  They now need to work out where the children will be staying, until they are adopted.  There are five women who will be paired with the five children (since women are generally better at looking after children).  The selections occur as follows:

  • Tiara chooses Win because of her hair. Tiara’s hair floats due to antigravity, while Win’s is blown by the wind at her back.  Tiara will help Win control her hair.
  • Santo chooses Metria, as he thinks she is pretty wild.
  • Merge chooses Myst. Myst can break up into multiple bits of water, while Merge can break up into five girls.
  • Squid chooses Kandy, as she is fascinated that Kandy can turn into a board.
  • That leaves Astrid with Firenze.

So the children split up, each to stay in the tent of their chosen woman, along with the woman’s partner in some cases.

When Astrid wakes the next morning, she sees that Art is giving Firenze a painting lesson.  That reminds her of the Answer, “Five Portraits”, which had no Question.  And they need to find a way to save Xanth in 50 years time: that is a Question without an Answer.  Or could it be that the Question and the Answer match up?

She suggests this to Firenze, who gathers the other children.  They decide to ask the Playground.  But first they must put on a play.  They decide on one based on their rescue from the future.  Firenze suggests ideas to Astrid who writes notes and adapts them into a play.  The children practise their parts.  Astrid will be Narrator and Prompter.

They perform the play on a stage in the Playground.  The virus-flighting team are the audience.

Afterwards the children prepare to link hands to get their answer.  Astrid suggests they get their question correct and complete: who should the portraits be of?  They discuss this and Firenze comes up with the idea that they should be of the five children and their adoptive families.

As the children link hands, Astrid steps down from the stage.  But she stumbles into an alcove marked “Do Not Enter”.  And finds herself somewhere else, on a flat plain which extends to the horizon in all directions.  There are mad birds here, and prigs who steal their eggs.  There are various other birds too, with names that are puns.

Astrid makes up a pun bird of her own; she announces that she is a See-fowl, and can see the way out of here.  Now she sees a plaque marked “Do Not Leave”.  She steps on it and finds herself back next to the stage.  Apparently no time had passed.

The children get their answer.  They will be adopted and painted, and this will save Xanth.

Astrid asks Firenze about the alcove with the “Do Not Enter” sign.  He says it is the Playground’s Storage facility.  It contains games like Mad Birds.

A Demon Trial
In the afternoon the team goes hunting for viruses again, with the children along too, with their own bottles of anti-virus elixir.

Squid wanders near a forest, and a dragon comes out and attacks her.  Kandy and Ease race to fend off the dragon.  Kandy transforms into the board, and Ease uses it to hit the dragon and drive it off.

But Squid is injured and bleeding.  Pewter pours some healing elixir on her and she sinks into sleep.  But Metria says that it was a poison dragon, with elixir-resistant venom.  Squid is dying.

Astrid says Fornax’s name, and Fornax appears.  She magically eliminates the venom from Squid’s body.

But then Demon Xanth appears.  He had detected the Demoness performing significant magic in his territory.  There will be a Demon Trial.  Three more Demons appear: Earth, Jupiter and Nemesis: they are the judges.  Nemesis is the Chief Judge.  The trial will be held in 24 hours.  Demon Xanth choses Kandy as his representative and Fornax chooses Astrid.

Astrid spends the intervening time preparing possible arguments for the trial, with the team making suggestions.  She doesn’t have access to Fornax.  She realises that if Fornax loses, Squid’s healing will be reversed, and if Squid dies they lose their chance to save the Land of Xanth.  But it seems unlikely that her arguments will convince the Demons.

She goes to see the children, who are in the Playground.  But they are not playing; instead they want to help her.  They will get the Playground to enhance their ability to decide the best action.  They perform a play, with Astrid as the audience.

Then Astrid describes the various arguments she could use at the trial, but the children reject them all; none of them will convince the Demon Judges.  Then she asks instead how she can best forward her case, and goes through the arguments again.  There is only one which the children accept: that Fornax acted to save a child.  Astrid finds it hard to see how that will work.

The time of the trial comes.  Demon Xanth is accompanied by his human wife Chlorine and his 15-year-old son Nimbus, a Demon/human crossbreed.

Kandy makes her case for the prosecution, that Fornax had intervened in Demon Xanth’s domain by saving a child, and that she had also interfered with the Demon Wager.

Astrid makes her case for the defence.  Fornax had saved the child as an act of friendship towards Astrid.  This also had the effect of safeguarding their plan to save the Land of Xanth.

The judges now give their verdict.  Earth and Jupiter vote guilty.  Nemesis is about to give his vote, when Demon Xanth announces that he is dropping the case; his wife and son have persuaded him.  The Demons depart.

It is time to think about the adoptions.  Squid suggests they ask the Playground how to go about it.  The children join hands, but they fall apart as if shocked.  Something drastic is about to happen.  But they must ask the Playground, or things could be even worse.

Fornax is nearby, appearing as a ghost.  (She usually can be seen by Astrid, but not necessarily by the others.)  She tells Astrid that she knows something, but doesn’t dare tell her, or she could be accused of interfering again.

Journey through the Storage
The children unfold the Playground, and they and Astrid enter it.  But then the edges of the Playground start to fold up again.  The only way to escape is to enter the alcove with the “Do Not Enter” sign.  Astrid herds the children in.  They arrive in the landscape Astrid had visited previously, with the Mad Birds.  This is “the Storage”.

Astrid tries stepping on the “Do Not Exit” pavement, but nothing happens.  The way back is blocked.  They will have to try to get out some other way.  Astrid points in various directions while the children are linked, and they tell her the best way.  They head off in that direction.

Astrid speculates that a Demon is responsible, probably Nemesis.  Fornax still can’t tell her anything and departs to avoid telling anything she shouldn’t.

The path leads them to a door labelled “Dungeon”.  They open it and enter an underground cave system.  As they continue they run into trouble with goblins, who don’t like them entering their territory.  Astrid and the children race ahead and come to a lake.  There are sharks in the water.  There is a raft with a sail there; they get on board.  Win increases the wind at her back to blow them across the water.

But on the other side there is a swarm of nickelpedes.  Squid enters the water and transforms into a brightly coloured jellyfish – the sharks would think she is poisonous – and fetches a mass of seaweed.  It smells nice but is poisonous.  She takes it to the shore, where the nickelpedes eat it and die.  The others all leave the raft and they continue on.

They come to a river.  There is another raft, but it is on the other side.  Squid transforms into a shark, swims across and pushes the raft back.  They all board and Win blows them across.

Further along harpies attack them.  Myst can transform into various kinds of mist; now she transforms into sleep gas, and the harpies crash to the ground.  Astrid captures one and forces her to tell them the way to the exit from the Dungeon.  They come to the exit.  There is no handle on the door, but Myst dissolves into mist, floats under the door, and lets them out from the other side.

They find pie plants, blanket bushes and a stream to drink from.  They take shelter in a grotto and go to sleep.

When Astrid awakes she finds a hood over her head and her arms are tied behind her back.  A voice speaks to her: he is Fowler Fiend. He had put sleep potion in the stream, and now intends to rape her and eat them all.  He grabs her.  But then Firenze wakes up and realises the fiend is attacking Astrid.  He becomes angry and shoots fireworks out of his head, first burning off his own hood and then attacking the fiend with them.  The fiend runs off.

By this stage Astrid has managed to scrape her hood off.  She is surprised that Firenze is producing actual fire. (Apparently his previous fireworks had just been a light display.)

Myst comes and unties them. (Evidently she had escaped her bonds by turning to mist.)  Astrid unties the rest of the children.

Astrid suggests to Firenze that maybe he can produce fireworks without getting angry.  He tries it out and discovers he can.

They continue on their way and encounter a pack of werewolves – initially in wolf form.  Astrid points out to them that she is a basilisk.  The werewolf leader transforms to human; she is a woman, and her name is Wulfha.  They agree to a truce.  The werewolves will provide the hospitality of their den in exchange for a service. Wulfha leads them to their grotto.  Astrid tells the werewolves of their adventures and the children demonstrate their talents.

Wulfha tells Astrid about the service they want her to do.  There is a cockatrice they want her to approach.  As a pack, they could defeat him, but they would like to make use of his Stare to defeat their enemies.

Astrid and the children have been given an alcove for sleeping.  Before going to bed, the children link hands.  Then Win tells Astrid that there is danger: there will possibly be a troll attack.

Astrid goes and tells Wulfha.  But Wulfha doesn’t think there is anything to worry about.  Astrid speaks to a male werewolf, Wolfram, the lead male warrior of the pack.  He says he will prepare for the attack.

During the night there is a gas attack, and trolls raid the camp. But the werewolves are ready; there is a fight, and the trolls are defeated.

In the morning, Astrid goes out to meet the cockatrice.  Through a combination of threats and encouragement, she persuades him to cooperate with the werewolves.

It is time for Astrid and the children to move on.  The werewolves escort them to the edge of Wolf Country.  Wulfha tells them they are entering Dragon Country.  The Dragon King is nasty: he captures young women, rapes them and forces them to be his servants.  He has captured Wesla, a female werewolf from Wulfha’s pack.

As Astrid and the children continue, there are a series of attacks by various kinds of dragons.  Astrid and the children use all their talents to fight back.

They come to a stone wall.  Santo has to make several small test holes to try and find a way through, with Myst and Win using their talents to test them.  Meanwhile Astrid and Firenze are still fighting off dragons.

Eventually Myst finds a hole that goes through.  Santo enlarges the hole; they all hurry through.  They are in passage inside a castle.  The children link hands and discover that they are in the Dragon King’s Castle: they know of it from their history.

A goblin woman approaches.  Her name is Goldie.  She is a servant of the Dragon King.  She tells Astrid the Dragon King wants her (Astrid) to be his future queen. She conducts them to a suite of rooms.

Astrid suspects they are being observed.  She tells the children to join hands with her in a ceremony of appreciation, but she really intends them to use their talent of communing.  This is the first time Astrid has been included in their communion.  There is a shared thought: they are captives of the Dragon King.  They must escape within a day, but they must not give any sign they intend to escape.

A woman arrives: it is Wesla, the werewolf who had been captured from Wulfha’s pack.  She tells Astrid the Dragon King intends to marry her (Astrid). Having a basilisk would enable him to extend his hegemony beyond Dragon Country.  Astrid objects that she is already married, but Wesla says the Dragon King does not recognise marriages from outside the Storage.

There is a meal prepared for them.  Afterwards the children rest together in a big bed, linking hands.

Goldie and Wesla are cleaning up.  Astrid talks to them, getting to know them.  She tells Wesla that they had visited Wulfha’s pack.

A woman arrives: she is the Dragon Lady, a female dragon in human form.  She is the Dragon King’s mistress.  She is required to tell Astrid that she, Astrid, must marry the Dragon King.  If she doesn’t agree, the children will be taken one by one and tortured to death, and then the same will happen to Astrid. If they try to escape they will get lost in the illusion maze.  The Dragon Lady hopes Astrid will die, to leave the way open for her to marry the Dragon King.

Later, a man in a kingly robe comes to the door: it is the Dragon King in human form.  He seems pleasant, but makes it clear that his offer will not be denied.

Afterwards Astrid talks to the children.  They play a game of crossed fingers: when a person’s fingers are crossed, they are telling a lie.  That way, if they are overheard, the hearer will not know what they are really saying.  Their words say they are happy to stay in the castle, but their real message is that they must leave that night.

As evening comes, they all go to bed.  But later, in the darkness, they get up.  The children have a plan and an escape route.  They lead Astrid to the laundry chute, and they let themselves down into the laundry, then make their way through an air vent and then down into a cellar region and to a cave.  There are nickelpedes, but they turn out to be illusions.  They continue on through the illusion maze, but the children know the way.  They come to the moat, and a moat monster emerges.

They are about to attack the monster, when a voice behind them stops them.  Wesla and Goldie are following them: not to stop them, but to escape with them.  Goldie speaks to the monster, and it subsides into the water

The children link hands, and to Astrid’s surprise, say they must wait for the Dragon King.  Astrid tells Wesla and Goldie they can trust what the children say.

Win is the one who will fend off the dragon; the others’ talents won’t work in this situation.

The Dragon King approaches, this time flying in his dragon form, and breathing fire.  The two boys hold Win’s arms to steady her.  She generates her wind, building it up more strongly, eventually to gale force, hurricane force and tornado force.  The dragon is blown away.

But they must get away before the dragon recovers.  Win is unconscious from the effort, so Wesla carries her.  The goblin domain is in the nearby mountain, so Goldie leads them to it.

They are welcomed by Queen Golden of the Goblin Annex.  She reveals that Goldie is her daughter.  They all sleep the rest of the night in the goblin domain.

In the morning, a contingent of armed goblins, led by Goldie, conducts Wesla back to Wolf Country.  Astrid and the children continue on through the cave system within the mountain.

They come to a huge subterranean chamber with a high ceiling and a floor so far below it is lost in darkness.  There are swinging platforms suspended by ropes.  The children link hands and determine that they must use the swings to get across.

Only one person can fit on each swing.  They must transfer from swing to swing, with Win moving the swings with her wind.  Using this method they move themselves out over the gulf.

But then flying creatures start attacking them: dragons, bats etc.  First they are illusions.  Then they are real but invisible.  Squid can smell them and point to them, so that Santo can put holes in them.  Myst transforms into a visible cloud of mist, so that the creatures show as spaces in the mist.  In between attacks, Myst returns to her swing; as a mist, there is a risk she could be blown away by wind.   More flying creatures attack: this time they are real, but illusions show them different from what they are.

They eventually arrive at a large stone platform partway across the gulf, and get off their swings.

A Demon appears: this is Demon Gambol, who specialises in games.  He is the owner of the Playground and the Storage.  Children are free to play in the Playground, but they are not supposed to intrude in the Storage. (He regards the creatures living in the Storage as vermin.)  Astrid explains their situation.  Gambol says he will let her go, but the children must stay.  When Astrid objects, he says she can buy them back by providing him with a new game.  The children think up a game and play it out for him, and he is satisfied.

They continue on on the swings, heading for a sign that says Exit.  There are no more attacks from flying creatures.

Win blows the last swing, to bring it toward her, but it snags on a rock.  She blows again and the rope breaks, dropping the swing’s board into the gulf.  Have they been stopped so close to the exit?

Demoness Fornax appears, and so does Demon Nemesis.  He is revealed to have his hand on the swing’s rope.  Fornax has caught him interfering in a Demon Wager.  She has a hold over him; she will require some deal with him, otherwise she can reveal his interference to the other Demons.  Nemesis replaces the swing, and then disappears.

Fornax tells them she has been watching them invisibly during their whole journey.  They all exit the Storage. Fornax remains with them.

They have arrived in the Region of Earth (one of the Elemental Regions of Xanth) far from their starting point.  Fornax tells them that Gambol owns several Playgrounds, which can be moved around, but their exits are all in this fixed place.  But Nemesis had flipped the matchbox, the folded Playground, into the Gap Chasm.

Fornax shows them an alcove in the nearby mountain where there is a pointer showing the way to the Playground and how far it is.  Santo makes a big hole – actually a long tunnel – that leads from their current location to the Gap Chasm.  The children build a cart from branches and vines.  It has three wheels and a sail.  They place it in the tunnel. Then they all get into the cart, with Win standing at the back, so her wind blows the sail.  The cart travels along the tunnel, which sometimes passes through the air and sometimes underground.  Eventually they arrive in the Gap Chasm.

The Gap Dragon comes towards them.  Astrid tells him she is a basilisk and they agree to a truce.  The children hunt around and find their matchbox.

Santo has become suspicious of something.  Fornax says she will take them to her place.  They get back in the cart and travel along the tunnel, but this time they come out in a castle.  Fornax explains that it is her castle in the Fornax Galaxy: she maintains it as terrene matter (normal matter) in the antimatter galaxy, so they can survive in it. (There have been occasions in previous books when people from Xanth have visited Fornax’s castle in the Fornax Galaxy.)

Fornax explains that she had been enhancing their talents throughout their adventure in the Storage, which had enabled them to escape danger on several occasions, and also enabled Santo to create the long tunnel.  The children had been aware of their increased powers, but assumed it was normal development of their talents, or that they just hadn’t tried particular aspects of them before.  In fact, their talent of “communing”, when they link hands, plus increased intelligence, had also been given to them by Fornax.  She had done all this because of her friendship with Astrid, and a desire to love and to be loved by the children.

But, she warns them, they must not reveal her intervention to anyone, otherwise she could be judged adversely by the Demons, for interfering in the Demon Wager.  And they mustn’t be too obvious about their increased powers.

They all stay for a while in the castle, and then return by the tunnel to the Gap Chasm.  They must now return to the virus-fighting team.  They decide that creating another tunnel might be too obvious a display of Santo’s power, so they will walk back instead.

As night falls they come to a rest stop, and sleep within the shelter.

Dream of Day Mares
During the night, Fornax communicates mentally with Astrid.  Someone, presumably a Demon, is sending the children a joint dream.  Fornax relays the dream to Astrid.

In the dream, the children appear to wake up and leave the shelter.  They meet five pretty horses.  One of them, called Doris, explains that they are day mares: they carry pleasant dreams to people.  But they have run out of supplies of daydreams, and need the children’s help.  The dreams are stored in Castle Innocent, but only children can enter.

The children agree.  They get on the horses’ backs, and the horses carry them to the castle.  Doris warns them that they must not eat anything in the castle.

They enter the castle and find boxes labelled “Dreams”.  They pick them up and carry them to the entrance.  But Myst sees a chocolate chip cookie and eats it.  A siren sounds, lights blink and the door slams shut.  A voice comes from the castle telling them they must confess their most guilty secrets.  (Astrid and Fornax, observing, realise that a Demon is trying to get them to reveal Fornax’s interference.  It isn’t Nemesis, because Fornax has been keeping track of him.)

The children join hands and commune.  They discuss (without naming her) how they can’t betray Fornax.  But then they realise that this is a dream.  Win works out their anger by destroying the castle with her wind.  The day mares’ disguises are blown off and they are revealed as night mares.  The children wake normally.

They eventually arrive back at the camp of the virus-fighting team, who welcome them back.

Astrid has become fond of the children, as they are of her, and she is not looking forward to the time when they must leave to be adopted.

The Adoptions: Firenze
Now they must proceed with getting the children adopted.

The children present a play in the Playground, based on their dream of the Day Mares.  Then they link hands and commune.

Firenze says he is the first to be adopted; there is a couple seeking to adopt a child in the Panhandle of Xanth.  Astrid says she will go with him, and Mitch suggests they take the Trollway.  Fornax will also go with them, but will be invisible to other people.

As they walk along the enchanted path to the Trollway, Firenze says she wishes that Astrid could adopt him.  She says she wishes this too.

They come to the troll-house.  To pay for the transport, they propose that Firenze could put on a display of fireworks for the other passengers.  The troll checks his schedule and discovers that a bus containing restive children will be passing through.  Firenze can do his displays to keep them entertained.

So when the bus arrives they get on board.  The bus is larger inside than out, with a playroom at the back, with children aged 4 or 5.  They are being looked after by a female troll.

When the children on board get bored and start racing about, Firenze goes to the playroom and puts on a display of fireworks.

The bus comes to a rest stop.  There will be a half hour break.  They all get off.  Fornax has to leave them, because Kandy has some business with the Demons that requires Fornax’s attention.

When the time comes, they get on the bus again.  Firenze notices they have a different driver (who of course is a troll).  Fornax returns and detects that something is wrong; their Demon adversary has acted while Fornax was distracted.  Now she can’t take action without interfering with the Demon Bet.

Firenze puts on another display for the children.  Astrid warns the troll matron that there is trouble ahead, but the matron does not believe her.

They come to a fork in the road; Firenze realises they have taken the wrong road.  Astrid speaks to be matron who agrees they are no longer on the correct route; in fact they are not supposed to have a new driver.  She goes to speak to him.

The driver becomes belligerent.  He stops the bus and holds a knife to the throat of one of the children.  He orders the matron to put a sleeping mask over Astrid’s eyes, to prevent her using her basilisk’s Stare, and then to tie Astrid’s hands behind her back.  Then the troll comes and holds his knife to Astrid’s throat.  He tells her he intends to rape her and take the children to be put in the cooking pot.

But then the bus starts off again.  Firenze is driving.  The troll races back to the driver’s seat.  The bus suddenly stops and Firenze fires his fireworks at the troll’s face and puts him out of action.  In the meantime the matron unties Astrid.  Fornax tells Astrid she had taught Firenze to drive, which is an incidental skill, not specifically relevant to the Demon Bet.  (From now on, Fornax would often make hints and suggestions, which although theoretically incidental, help them achieve their goals.)

Astrid pushes the troll out of the bus, and Firenze continues to drive, returning them to the correct route.  They reach their destination, and the matron explains to the troll administrator what had happened.  The administrator grants Firenze a free passage on the trollway for any future trip.

Guided by Firenze’s sense of direction, Astrid and Firenze come to a sawmill.  There is a man there; his name is Laser; he is cutting a log with laser beams that shoot out of his hands.

Astrid tells him about Firenze’s talent, and asks if he wants to adopt Firenze.  Laser and his wife had indeed been thinking of adopting.  But Firenze’s talent is not suitable for the sawmill: it would only set fire to the wood.

So Astrid and Firenze return to the trollway and wait for the next bus back.  Firenze says he had enjoyed their trip together, and is relieved that he is not leaving her.  Fornax points out (as an incidental remark) that there is nothing to stop them adopting within the group.

The Adoptions: Squid
They return to the camp.  Astrid and Art agree; they will get married and adopt Firenze, and Art will paint the family portrait, using a mirror.

The children commune and Squid announces that she is the next to be adopted – to a family on an island.  She points in the appropriate direction.  Astrid says she will go with her.  Kandy and Ease say they will go as well.

They set off the next day.  They come to water – apparently an inlet of a larger sea.  They find a boat – a dugout canoe – tangled in some vines.  Ease pulls it clear.  Kandy transforms into her board form, so that Ease can use it as a paddle.  Astrid finds a branch to be used as another paddle.  They get in and start paddling in the direction Squid indicates.

There is a cloud in the sky: it is Fracto, the worst of storm clouds.  Ease unwisely makes a derogatory remark about Fracto. A storm starts building up.

When they had encountered Fracto before (in “Board Stiff”), Astrid had pacified him using her feminine wiles; they probably need something more this time.  So Astrid, Kandy and Fornax display their naked bodies to Fracto, and Astrid apologises.  The storm stops building up.  Now Fracto blows them across the water in the direction they need to go.

They come to an island, but this is possibly not their destination.  It is a small mountain in the form of a huge bee, with honey pouring from its mouth into a pool-sized pot.  (Fornax has faded out, which suggests to Astrid that she was avoiding saying something which would constitute Demonic interference.)

Ease uses a dipper to taste the honey, and pronounces it very good.  Kandy does the same.  Astrid tells Squid they need to be cautious.  She suggests that Squid swim around the island to see what she can see.  Squid soon returns and says the bee has legs and is tied to a rock below.  This must be a real bee.

Ease and Kandy have fallen asleep; there must have been sleeping potion in the honey.

Squid uses her communing ability to communicate mentally with the bee, and learns that a demon captured her and tied her here to produce honey for him.  Astrid suggests they untie her, and in return the bee can carry their boat away from here.  Squid dives down and unties the bee’s legs from the rock, then returns to the boat.  The bee lifts off and grabs the boat with her legs.

But then the demon arrives.  The only thing Astrid can think of is to flash him as they did with Fracto.  Kandy wakes up and Fornax reappears.  The three women display their naked bodies, which distracts the demon long enough for the bee to take off and fly away, carrying the boat.  The bee continues on and deposits the boat near their destination island.  Ease has woken up by this time, and is sorry to have missed the naked display.

They recognise it: it is the Island of Doctor Moribund, which the team had visited in “Board Stiff”.  Astrid is alarmed, but then remembers that that episode had had a happy ending.  Maddy (a crazy woman who only wanted to kill herself) and Mexine (a mermaid with a malformed tail) had used Dr M’s equipment to swap their lower halves.  Mexine had married Dr M and Maddy had found love with Dr M’s assistant Frank (aka Frankenstein Monster).

Maddy, who is therefore now a mermaid, greets them from the water.  She tells them that all is well with herself and Frank, and also with Dr M and Mexine, except that the stork has not been responding to Mexine’s and Dr M’s signals.

She calls Frank, who escorts the party to the mansion. There they meet Mexene, who now of course has legs and appears to be a normal human woman.

Astrid tells her that they need to get Squid adopted.  Since Mexene has not been able to get a child, maybe she would like to adopt Squid.  Astrid points out that Squid is 6 years old and is an alien – a moctopus.

Mexine takes Squid in to meet Dr M.  Dr M is interested to hear that Squid is a moctopus; he had heard of that alien race.  He says that if they adopt her she will have to do chores.  He suggests one for her to try.

Dr M had accidentally dropped the Hopeless Diamond down the water well, and believes that it has been poisoning the water, making people feel hopeless.  He would like Squid to fetch it.

Squid gets in the bucket and Frank lowers it down into the well.  Kandy is concerned for Squid, but Fornax reminds her (as incidental information) that Squid is competent in water and can glow in the dark.

After a while, there is a tug on the rope, and Frank raises the bucket up again.  Squid is there, and has the diamond.  Dr M takes it to store in a secure place.

So they are ready to proceed with the adoption.  But then a stork arrives, carrying a bundle containing a baby, to be delivered to Mexene.  The stork had had trouble finding the island; apparently the effect of the diamond had leaked into the surrounding sea.

In dismay, Mexene says she can’t handle two children; she can’t adopt Squid after all.

So Astrid and her party depart in their boat.  Kandy confesses that when Squid had disappeared into the well, she had felt fearful for her, as if Squid were her own child.  And when the adoption was about to occur, she felt as if her heart would break.  Ease says he had felt the same.  Kandy and Ease realise that they want to adopt Squid.

The Adoptions: Win
The travellers return to the camp and tell the others what had happened.  Now that it is clear that the adoptions can occur within the group, things will be straightforward; it will not be necessary to travel long distances to locate adoptive parents.

Tiara and Mitch agree that they want to adopt Win.

Tiara and Win demonstrate how they can use their combined talents to fly.  Win sits on Tiara’s lap.  Tiara spreads her hair underneath them and they float up.  Win turns and faces Tiara, which blows her backwards, and then Win squirms around to sit behind Tiara, still on Tiara’s hair, which blows Tiara forwards.  They fly above the treetops.

Fornax fades out at this point, which is an indication that there is something she can’t tell them.  There may be danger; Astrid calls Tiara and Win to come down.

But a wind picks up from another source – it is Fracto again.  Tiara and Win are blown away and disappear out of sight.

Fornax appears again and tells Astrid she has restored the Sequins of Events dress, so she can visit again some of the places she visited previously (in “Board Stiff”).  (In that book, removing a sequin and replacing it triggered an event, transporting the group to another location, as part of their quest.  Each sequin was keyed to a particular location, and once used could not be used again in that adventure.)  Astrid understands that Fornax is hinting that she will find Tiara and Win at one of those locations.

Mitch wants to come with her.  Astrid puts on the dress, and Mitch removes a sequin and replaces it.

They find themselves on the planet Alpha, in the Alpha Centauri solar system, where some centaurs from Xanth have set up their own colony.  [Actually, in “Board Stiff”, the sequin had sent them to a spaceship heading for Alpha Centauri, not the planet itself.]  But Fracto would not have been able to blow Tiara and Win across space.  Mitch removes another sequin and replaces it.

They find themselves in a bustling office with video screens all around.  But then the room moves past them.  It is the Cloud – of the kind related to Com Pewter, rather than the same kind as Fracto.  Fracto would not have brought them here.  Mitch removes another sequin and replaces it.

Now they are at Com Pewter’s cave.  But Fracto would not have brought Tiara and Win here, in case Pewter returned.  Mitch removes another sequin and replaces it.

Now they are on the island where Tiara was originally imprisoned in the tower.  Mitch has not been here before, as he only joined the group after they visited this location.

They walk along to the tower and meet a woman.  It is Cry, one of Tiara’s sisters who had imprisoned her in the tower.  Cry (“Cry Sis”) is crying as she normally does in a crisis. She is upset that Tiara is missing from the tower.  Astrid reassures her that Tiara had left the tower and learnt to fly and had found a man.  Since Tiara and Win are not here, Mitch removes another sequin and replaces it.

Now they are in the field in which Fracto had flooded them, and they had ended up at the Island of Doctor Moribund.  If Tiara and Win had appeared there, Dr M and company would have helped them return.

The next location is Punic Curse, Mitch’s home village.  Mitch checks, but Tiara and Win are not there.  [The original Punic Curse village was destroyed by the virus, and the villagers had had to rebuild it somewhere else.  Presumably the sequin had oriented on the new location.]

The next location is the maize maze, near the zoo run by aliens, where the group had been imprisoned.  Astrid and Mitch are about to move on when Mitch picks up a thought from Tiara.  Mitch’s talent is to receive and send thoughts.  He communicates mentally with Tiara and discovers that they are imprisoned in the zoo.

They would be able to find Tiara and Win by following the wind that Win generates.  They decide to wait till nightfall.  They will sleep till then.

When Astrid lies down, Fornax appears beside her.  Carefully framing her statements as conjectures that she suspects Astrid is making, she suggests that the aliens are setting up a trap for Astrid, and that they want a basilisk as a zoo exhibit, and they want to breed her in public.

Astrid and Mitch sleep till dusk and then approach the zoo gate.  Win has sent Mitch a suggestion that he can send a thought to the gate that it should unlock.  He tries it and it works.  Following the wind which has Win’s scent, they come to the glass house where the group had previously been accommodated. They see Tiara inside.  Mitch enters and kisses her.  But then he realises this is not Tiara; it is Timothea, the demoness who is working with the aliens.

Mitch leaves the house.  He and Astrid follow Win’s wind, which leads to an arena nearby.  It is brightly lit, with aliens in all the seats.  Tiara and Win are in the centre, with Tiara tied to a stake with a vine.  Mitch goes to her and sends a thought to the vine that it wants to be untied. This works.

Fornax appears to Astrid and tells her a story: how one ogre, with half a soul, had been pounded into the ground by a second ogre.  Then the first ogre’s girlfriend had lent him her soul, which had enabled him to defeat the second ogre because of the imbalance of their souls. (The first ogre is Smash Ogre from the story “Ogre, Ogre”.)  Astrid doesn’t get the relevance of the story.

Mitch tells Tiara it is time to leave, and asks her if she can carry him and Astrid as well, with her floating hair.  Tiara says she can; she has more power than previously.

A cockatrice appears at the gate of the arena.  Astrid tells the others to go without her; they do so.

The cockatrice transforms into a human man.  (Astrid is surprised that he has this ability just like her.)  His name is Cocksure; he is looking forward to all the public matings they will have in future.  Astrid goes to remove a sequin from her dress, but Cocksure knows about that, and stops her.  And he is immune to her basilisk stare.

They are now fighting hand to hand, which Cocksure is enjoying and so is the audience.  But Astrid realises that she is stronger than him because she has a soul and he doesn’t; that was the relevance of Fornax’s story.  And now she uses her stare on him while in contact with him, and he drops unconscious.  She removes a sequin and replaces it.

And she finds herself in the courtyard of Caprice Castle.  Princess Dawn comes to her and touches her, and because of her talent (to know everything about any living thing), knows the whole story.

Caprice Castle is a castle which travels around, so the proprietors (Dawn and her husband Picka Bone, the walking skeleton) and any other residents can collect the excess puns and store them in the dungeon.  So now the castle arrives at the camp of the virus-fighting team, and Dawn invites them all in.  Tiara, Mitch and Win are among them; they had arrived back safely.

The Adoptions: Myst
Because the castle travels around, Dawn is able to tell them where the remaining virus infestations are.  And the castle can provide puns to reseed the areas once they’ve destroyed the virus.

The castle puts the team off in one of the infested areas.  They go to work applying the antidote.  As before, Merge splits into her five aspects.

While they are working, Merge meets a man called Jon, who seems to be a suitable marriage candidate for her. He doesn’t mind the fact that she can split into five separate women. She tells him they would need to adopt Myst. But Jon believes in disciplining children by spanking, and Merge cannot accept this. So Jon departs.

As the following days go by, the team continues to work on clearing the virus-infested areas.  But no more marriage prospects appear for Merge.

One day when Firenze is working alongside Astrid, he tells her he is worried about Santo.  Metria does not seem a suitable mother for him; she is too flighty, and doesn’t seem very interested in children.  Besides, there is something about Santo which Santo has told him in confidence.

There is a fork in the path.  Fornax appears and suggests they take the path on the right.  So they do.

They meet a 10-year-old girl (the same age as Firenze) playing with sand and making surprisingly intricate figures out of it.  Her name is Sand D, and her talent is that she is good with sand.  She tells them she was adopted by a woman who is a sand witch: that is, she conjures sand.  Sand D has no father: it was a single parent adoption.

Astrid had thought that was against the rules, but it turns out that there is no rule against it.  She leaves Firenze with Sand, and goes to get Merge.

She finds Merge and Myst together and brings them back to Sand and Firenze.  Sand takes them to her home, which is a sand castle, where they meet the Sand Witch. The three children go off to play together, while Merge discusses the idea of a single parent adoption with the Sand Witch. When they all meet up again, Merge tells Myst she will proceed with the adoption.

There is still the problem of the Demon interfering with the adoptions.  Fornax suggests that Astrid take an evening walk alone.  So she does.

She meets a 17-year-old girl, who tells her that she is Fray Cloud, the daughter of Fracto, compacted into human form.  A Demon had forced Fracto to take action against Tiara and Win. The Demon had threatened to kidnap Fray, lock her into her compact form and throw her in amongst brutish trolls.

Fray is about to give the name of the Demon, when a lightning bolt strikes, blasting Fray into swirling vapour.

But when the vapour dissipates, Fornax emerges; she had been impersonating Fray.  She grabs the lightning bolt, which is in the form of a trident, and pulls on it, and Demon Neptune appears at the other end.  It is he who has been interfering.  [Presumably the story about the threat to Fray is true, otherwise Neptune would not have reacted to it.]

Now Fornax has a hold over Neptune.  They will come to some deal to avoid Fornax denouncing him to the other Demons.

The Adoptions: Santo
Metria is distraught.  Santo has disappeared.

Astrid asks the children about him.  It seems he has gone away because he felt he didn’t belong.

Fornax reminds Astrid that she hasn’t used up all the sequins.  So she puts on the Sequins of Events dress again, removes a sequin and replaces it.

She finds herself in what seems to be a dungeon.  She notices that all the sequins have gone dull, which indicates she is in Hades.  Fornax appears beside her.

Astrid calls Santo and he comes to her.  She asks him what the problem is, and after a while he confesses that he feels he is unworthy, because he is gay.  When he grows up he will want to marry a man.

Fornax points out to him that everyone is different in some way.  Astrid is a basilisk.  Fornax is the Demoness of Antimatter.  His difference is small compared to theirs.  Eventually Santo becomes convinced.

But how can they get back to Xanth?  Hades is on the planet Pluto.  Santo must have created a wormhole through space to get here.  But the way back would have collapsed, and Santo has used up his magical energy.

In response to hints from Fornax, Astrid realises they must be in the dungeon of Princess Eve’s castle.  They make their way up the stairs to a door, which is locked.  Astrid knocks on the door, and a guard on the other side answers, and lets them out.  He tells her Eve is away at the moment.

They find 5-year-old Plato, Princess Eve’s son, playing with a zombie rat.  His talent is converting dead creatures to zombies; he is destined to become the next Zombie Master when he grows up.

They find Plato’s governess, Zosi, in the kitchen. Zosi is a zombie woman, but she was transformed to become fully alive (in “Esrever Doom”) for a mission to solve the problem of the dwindling numbers of zombies. And she remains in that state in order to look after Plato, and for the sake of being with her boyfriend Kody (who also appears in “Esrever Doom”).

Astrid explains how they come to be there.  When Astrid mentions Fornax, Zosi becomes alarmed; Fornax was her enemy in her quest in “Esrever Doom”.  Astrid explains that Fornax has changed because of Astrid’s friendship with her.  Fornax appears and confirms that this is so.

When Santo tells Zosi that he is gay, Zosi is quite accepting of this.  Her boyfriend Kody is gay when he is home in Mundania.  But he comes to her in Xanth when he dreams, and then his orientation is reversed.  [This was hinted at, but never stated explicitly in “Esrever Doom”.]

Zosi and Plato escort Astrid and Santo from the castle, along the path to the River Styx.  But Plato has to go potty, so Zosi and Plato hurry away.

Charon the Demon ferryman arrives to take Astrid and Santo across the river.  The lecherous Demon insists on the payment of a Kiss and a Feel from Astrid.  On the other side the path leads to Xanth.

Now the three couples (Kandy and Ease, Tiara and Mitch, and Astrid and Art) have to marry before proceeding with the adoptions.  They hold a freestyle ceremony, where each person says his or her vows.  (In Xanth, weddings are often conducted by a celebrant, but this is not legally required.)

The next day they set up for the first portrait.  Kandy and Ease pose in front of a mockup of a wishing well, as they had first met at one (in “Board Stiff”).  (Admittedly Kandy was a board at the time, and Ease didn’t recognise her as human.)  Squid emerges from the well in her natural form and then changes to her human form and joins them.  Kandy speaks the words of adoption.

Art proceeds to paint the portrait.  He completes it by the end of the day.  As he finishes, there is a ripple of colour, like an implosion centred on the painting.  This suggests portentous significance.

The next day Tiara and Mitch adopt Win and they pose for their portrait, which has a pleasant windblown appearance.  Again, when it is complete, there is a ripple of colour.

The next day Astrid and Art adopt Firenze.  Art sets up a big mirror, so he can paint from their reflection as they pose.  Again, on completion, there is a ripple of colour.

The next day Merge adopts Myst and they pose together, as Art paints the portrait.  He shows Merge’s five aspects faintly in the background.  On completion, there is a ripple of colour.  (And this confirms there is no problem about it being a single parent adoption.)

The fifth portrait is supposed to be a portrait of Metria, her husband, and Santo.  [Metria’s husband, Veleno, only appears significantly in one story, “Harpy Thyme”, and it seems that he hasn’t (yet) turned up on this occasion.]  Metria wonders how to pose, and transforms into her other aspects, Mentia and the 6-year-old Woe Betide.  Astrid is concerned: Woe Betide is younger than Santo; she can hardly be a suitable mother for him.  The Adult Conspiracy may intervene and ruin the adoption.

Metria attempts to say the words of adoption, but she can’t get them right.  It seems the Adult Conspiracy is objecting.

Astrid discusses this with Fornax, and they come to the conclusion that Fornax should marry Demon Nemesis, and Fornax and Nemesis should adopt Santo.  This would be a suitable penalty for Nemesis for his interference.  Fornax disappears, but soon returns with Nemesis.  She asks Santo whether he wants them as his parents.  Santo is happy to agree.

So Art paints their portrait, and on completion the colour implosion occurs, confirming its legitimacy.

The Demon Court appears.  The Chief Judge is Demoness Venus; the other judges are Saturn and Earth.  The charge against Fornax and Nemesis is that they are interfering in Xanth and causing a change in future history.  Again Kandy is required to represent Demon Xanth and Astrid is required to represent Fornax and Nemesis.

Kandy, for the prosecution, argues that if a child requires adoption, surely there are people in the Land of Xanth who can perform this role.  It should not be done by foreign Demons.

Astrid points out that Fornax performed the adoption out of friendship, not for interference.  This was required to complete the five adoptions, and the portraits, in order to save the Land of Xanth in the future, as specified by the prophecy.

Kandy questions the validity of the prophecy.  She asks for a viewing of the future history of Xanth, with and without the Demons’ interference.

Two windows appear: one shows the family group of Nemesis, Fornax and Santo, the other shows Santo alone.

The Family picture shows a normal family life.  Nemesis shows Santo how to deal with bullies who take exception to his nature.  When people in the wider community ridicule him, Nemesis is always there to back him up.

In the other frame, Santo is on his own.  He has no home.  He mostly avoids other people.

Years pass in both frames and he reaches adulthood.  In the home frame he makes his living making holes where people need them, and becomes respected.  In the homeless frame, no one wants his services, and he lives in obscurity.

Then comes the invasion.  Ogres, goblins and humans break through the walls separating realities.

In the homeless frame, Santo goes to stop them, but there are too many invaders, and Santo is chopped to pieces.  The invaders overwhelm Xanth.  The defenders create a virus which wipes out all living things, and everyone dies, both invaders and residents.

In the home frame, Santo works with others in the community and they form a significant resistance when the invaders come.  He creates a hole to Hell, and the invaders all fall into it.  Xanth is saved.

Kandy admits that the prophecy is valid, but this means Fornax and Nemesis’s interference has had effect, so the charge must be upheld.  The consequence would be that the marriage, the adoption and the portrait would be annulled.

Astrid tries to think of another argument.  She asks that the frames should show all the children.  This requires a Petition from the Defendant, which Fornax provides.

The parallel timelines are shown again.  The other children are there supporting Santo in each frame.  They all use their talents to repel the invaders, but again it is Santo’s Hell hole in the home frame that makes the difference.

Astrid asks that the parents be shown in the frames.  This requires a Petition from the other Defendant, which Nemesis gives.  (Although he had been coerced into the marriage and adoption, he is taking his responsibility for his son seriously.)

There is a significant difference in the negative frame.  In that frame, Astrid, having lost the case, and the possibility of Xanth being saved, walks to the Gap Chasm and jumps in, committing suicide.  Her soul travels to Hades, where Charon claims her as his mistress.  He tells her he had worked for this goal, and got his chance when he was given the job of displaying the timelines for the Trial.  He had fixed it so one would fail, and result in Astrid coming to him.  [Exactly to what extent the negative timeline was falsified is not clear.  I assume it is still true that Santo had to be adopted in order for Xanth to be saved.]

Demoness Venus states that Fornax and Nemesis are exonerated.  The Demonic interference had been from Charon instead.  The Demons depart.

Fornax is pleased that Nemesis had used his Petition to save their son.  This promises to be a good marriage.

And so the team have succeeded in their goal: Xanth will escape its future destruction.