Skeleton Key (2021)
[In this review I have used the actual chapter headings from the book.]
The story continues from “Jest Right” with Fibot, the Fire Sail boat, and the same crew as before: a man called Dell and a woman called Nia in charge, with the children, Santo (13 years old), Squid (11), Win (10), Myst (9), Ula (11) and Noe (12), and Tata the dogfish and the peeve. Also on board are the entertainers Magnus and Jess; the crew of Fibot have the responsibility of transporting them to their performances.
Fibot, the Fire Sail boat, is a magical flying boat with a fiery sail. It appears small, but the interior belowdecks, where the living quarters are, is much bigger than would seem possible from looking at the boat from outside.
Santo, Squid, Win and Myst, and Firenze (15), who is not on board, are five children who were rescued (in the story “Five Portraits”) from an alternative Xanth, with a setting 50 years in the future, which was being destroyed. Although not related, they have become very close, and regard themselves as siblings. Each of the five children was adopted by a different family.
Tata is a combination of dog and fish, covered with metal and with a computer screen for a face. He has a comprehensive computer memory bank, and provides essential information for their travels, which he displays on his screen. The peeve is a small bird whose main role is to read Tata’s screen and pass the information to the rest of the crew.
Squid is an alien creature who had been visiting the alternative Xanth at the time of its destruction. She was previously described as being similar to an octopus or a squid. In this story she is described as being an alien cuttlefish. She is able to transform her appearance by manipulating her body and changing her colouring; she currently appears as a human girl.
Santo has asked Squid to meet him in a glade away from Fibot. As she walks to the rendezvous, she meets a boy named Zero whose talent is zeroing in on things. Today he has chosen to zero in on importance. He tells Squid that his talent tells him that she is the most important person in the universe. Squid very much doubts that.
When she arrives at the glade, Santo tells her several things, of which he has been informed by his adoptive mother Demoness Fornax:
- Something big is coming, and Squid will be at the centre of it. So Zero was probably right.
- Squid will be the protagonist of the current story.
- Squid’s shape-changing ability will be enhanced, so she can emulate any creature and any age, although she won’t be able to change her mass.
- She will also receive the talent of attuning: if someone talks about her, she will be able to observe what is happening with that person, as if she were present with them. [Throughout this story it should be assumed that all narrated scenes are being observed by Squid.]
- Myst and Firenze will be upgraded too.
- A special child will be joining them: Larry, who is transgender, a girl trapped in a boy’s body. Larry’s true identity is female, Laurelai.
- Squid must be Larry’s nominal girlfriend. But this is just for appearances, similar to Santo and Noe’s relationship. (Although Santo is gay, he and Noe are good friends, and having a girlfriend avoids Santo getting a certain amount of teasing.)
- Demoness Fornax will be taking up secret residence in Laurelai’s mind. This is possible because Laurelai is female. A female Demoness cannot reside in a male mind.
- The reason for this is that Demon Xanth suspects that there is a foreign Demon interfering with the Land of Xanth. They hope to catch the Demon in a trap. Who would suspect a female Demoness hiding in a male body? And Larry having a girlfriend would add to the deception.
- They must keep Fornax’s presence secret. But they need to tell the rest of the siblings that Fornax is present, without specifying whose mind is hosting her.
Santo’s talent is to create holes. This includes tunnels, which enables people to move quickly from one place to another. He can even create tunnels through space, enabling Fibot to fly to other planets.
Santo had created a tunnel to come to this glade. He and Squid return to Fibot via the tunnel.
Squid goes to see Jess about being a protagonist, given that Jess had been the protagonist of the previous story (“Jest Right”). Jess tells her that she just needs to be an observer, the person from whose point of view the story is told. But then Squid tells her that she, Squid, is supposedly the most important person in the universe, and that she will have to be a girlfriend to a boy who is really a girl. Jess recognises that it will be difficult for Squid.
Now Santo and Squid have to go and meet Larry. Santo creates a tunnel to the rest stop nearest Good Magician Humfrey’s Castle, as Larry will be going to the Castle to ask a Question.
Santo and Squid go through the tunnel to the rest stop.
As Larry arrives, Squid goes to meet him, and to introduce herself and Santo. Larry tells her he is 12, and his talent is to change his apparent physical age (but his mental age is not affected).
Squid gets into a conversation with Larry. She explains that she is an alien cuttlefish from the future. She and the other four children were rescued by Astrid, a basilisk in human form, and Demoness Fornax. Fornax is Santo’s adoptive mother. Squid, and the other siblings, regard her as their aunt.
Larry explains that he is a girl in a boy’s body. His female self is named Laurelai, but he uses the name Larry for his male form. He is going to the Good Magician to ask to be put into the right body, a female one. He considers his talent of changing his age is of limited use, because if he ages himself past puberty, he doesn’t like the male feelings his body gets.
Squid tells him she wants to be his girlfriend.
She tells him what she knows about their mission, how something big is brewing, that there may be a foreign Demon interfering in Xanth, and that Demoness Fornax needs Laurelai as a host. The Good Magician will require Larry to do a Service for his Answer, and his inclusion in the mission will be that Service.
Larry has now assumed the persona of Laurelai (but without changing physically), and she asks to meet Fornax. Santo tells her to touch his hand, which puts her in touch with Fornax. And immediately Laurelai and Fornax are friends. Fornax takes over Laurelai’s body momentarily, and speaks to Santo before returning control to Laurelai.
Santo tells Larry to go to the Good Magician’s Castle in two days. Santo and Squid return to the boat.
Squid and Myst are in the room that they share on Fibot. Myst says she is jealous of Squid, because Squid has a boyfriend, even if it is pretence.
A recurring theme in the Xanth series is that when a woman flashes her panties at a man, he freaks out – that is, he goes into a trance. But it doesn’t work for children. Myst tells Squid she had tried to flash her panties at a boy, but he had just laughed.
Squid gets a vision: she sees a plaid panty on a beach. Apparently this is a result of her attuning talent, although no one had spoken her name. Maybe it was because they had been talking about panties. And maybe the talent is more powerful than Santo had thought it would be.
Squid now feels as if she is present in the scene, although she is not physically present. Two children arrive on the scene. Squid recognises them: they are a boy called Piton and a girl called Data. They are the twin children, aged 12, of Princess Dawn and the walking skeleton Picka Bone, who live in Caprice Castle, a castle which travels around. Piton and Data are currently in human form, but can transform between human and skeleton forms.
Piton and Data see the panty. Data tries to put it on, but this doesn’t work; it keeps snagging on her feet. Maybe it is a magic panty, which can only be put on by the person it is intended for.
The vision fades, and Squid is back with Myst. She tells Myst what had happened.
Myst says she wishes she had a magic panty. She would use it to snag a boyfriend – maybe like Piton; she thinks he is handsome.
Squid mentally hears Santo saying her name, and she mentally sees him on deck. He says to meet him on deck, to confirm that her attuning talent is working. Squid goes up to the deck and meets him there. She confirms that she had heard him, and tells him about her other vision.
Santo tells her that Fibot is heading for Caprice Castle. Magnus and Jess will be staying there for a week before their next engagement. Piton and Data are supposed to join the crew on board Fibot, as their parents think they need to socialise more. Data is willing, but Piton is reluctant. They will need to persuade him. Santo suggests that Myst could do the persuading.
Santo thinks that their mission will require a cast of children. Children are generally considered innocent (although Santo and Squid realise this is fallacious) and this will disguise their intent.
He says they need a cover story: they will form a dance troupe. They will perform classical dances: square, round, triangle, star and line dances. They will perform as part of Magnus’s show.
Squid goes back to Myst and tells her about the dance troupe. And she tells Myst she needs to persuade Piton to come on board, and to join in the dancing. Myst objects that Piton would not be interested in a girl as young as her. Squid says he will be trying to find out who the panty fits, and will want Myst to try it on.
The boat lands at the beach where Caprice Castle is currently located. Piton and Data are playing outside. Win and Myst go out to meet them. Win invites Piton and Data to come on board Fibot for a week or two.
Data says she will be glad to come. Piton says no. Win takes Data on board to show her round.
Myst takes Piton aside, hinting that he might see her naked. (But this never quite happens.) Myst demonstrates her magic talent, which is the ability to turn into mist. Piton shows how he can change into a skeleton and back. Both he and Data can do this. But this is not so much a magic talent as a magical characteristic they have inherited due to their parentage.
Now Piton suggests that Myst try on the plaid panty. Myst turns into mist and solidifies inside it, thus avoiding being naked in front of him. And the panty fits. She flashes the panty at him. And Piton freaks out. That is some magic panty!
While he is still in his trance, Myst tells him he will come on board Fibot, and be her dance partner and boyfriend. She snaps her fingers to bring him out of it.
Win and Data come looking for them. Data asks Piton if he is coming on board. Piton again expresses reluctance, and Myst flashes her panties again. This time not just Piton but also the two girls freak out. That has never been known to happen. That panty has powerful magic.
They all go on board.
Now Nia teaches the children how to do the square dance. There are four couples: Dell and Nia, Magnus and Jess, Santo and Noe, and Piton and Myst. The adults are being included until there are enough couples amongst the children. (Evidently Magnus and Jess have not left the boat yet, but will do so shortly after this.) The peeve is the caller, following the instructions on Tata’s screen.
Santo tells Squid that he and Noe are going with Ula to pick up Firenze. He wants Squid to tune in.
Santo and Noe go to Ula’s room. Santo tells Ula that he wants her to come with them to “tame” Firenze. She needs to persuade Firenze to come to Fibot.
Firenze is a hothead. He easily loses his temper, and when he does, his head heats up. He can even send fireworks shooting out of his head. This is his magic talent. But this means he is a fire hazard. He has not joined Fibot before because of the risk of setting it on fire.
Noe tells Ula that something big is going to happen, and they need to be ready for it as a group. As a cover story they are forming a dance group. Ula must be Firenze’s dance partner and girlfriend.
Santo, Noe and Ula leave the boat. Santo creates a tunnel. Inside the tunnel they have privacy. Santo tells Ula more about their mission.
- The siblings, and Ula, are having their talents upgraded.
- Ula can now be highly persuasive. If Firenze resists, Ula can kiss him and he will heed her.
- She will able to kiss him without being burned. If she kisses the side of his head, it will cool it.
- If she kisses his mouth, he will love her for a while.
- Ula must keep Firenze cool and happy, so he doesn’t set fire to the boat.
- Demoness Fornax will be with them, hosted by one of their party. She is enhancing their talents with permission from Demon Xanth (who would otherwise not permit such activity by another Demon within his domain).
- Firenze will have his own talent upgraded. He will now be able to heat his hands and feet and any other part of his body. But Ula will be able to touch him without being burned.
- They need Firenze on board for a Sibling Conference. (This activity had previously occurred in “Five Portraits”, where it was referred to as “coming together” or “communing”. The five siblings would come together in a circle, to obtain guidance on how they should proceed.)
- Noe and Ula will now be described as “virtual siblings”, and would be included in the Sibling Conference. The term “virtual siblings” would be used because complete siblings cannot be boyfriends and girlfriends. [Noe and Ula were defined as members of the group of siblings in “Jest Right”. This has now been qualified.]
The three now proceed through the tunnel to Firenze’s home, where he lives with his adoptive parents, Astrid Basilisk and her husband Art. They meet Astrid at the door. She is veiled to avoid accidentally killing people with her deadly glance. (At other times she has worn dark glasses.)
Santo tells Astrid they want Firenze to join them on Fibot. Ula says she hopes to persuade him.
Astrid says she would be happy for him to join them. But he is afraid of setting fire to the boat. If anyone can persuade him, Ula could. Firenze likes her. But Firenze has been depressed, argumentative and irritable lately; they have had to fireproof the house.
Astrid goes to get him.
Firenze appears. He is really irritable and grumpy. Ula kisses him on the cheek, and he cools down. Santo and Noe leave them together so they can talk.
Ula tells Firenze what Santo had told her, about their mission and their talents being upgraded.
Firenze asks Ula to kiss him. He wants proof that this will cause him to fall in love with her. They kiss, proving that this is so.
Firenze realises that he can now heat his head, and other parts of his body, without losing his temper. He picks up a twig and causes it to burst into flames. And Ula cools him down by touching him.
Firenze realises that he can now join them on the boat. But he doesn’t know Ula very well. He has known her peripherally for years as a sort of background character.
[The previous books have only recorded one meeting between Firenze and Ula, towards the end of “Jest Right”, plus another possibility of them meeting when the Fibot crew returned Astrid home. But if Firenze has known Ula for years, Fibot must have made several visits to Firenze’s home during the period of “Fire Sail” and “Jest Right”, which have not been mentioned in the books.]
Firenze suggests they exchange their life histories.
Ula tells her story. (This expands on information given in “Fire Sail”.)
Ula’s parents were killed in a freak accident. She was sent to an orphanage called the School of Hard Knocks. The other children picked on her, and the headmistress punished her by whipping her, producing welts on her back. The welts can still be seen.
Then she was told that she was likely to be sacrificed to the local dragon. So she ran away.
She was picked up by the crew of Fibot. Her story continues as told in “Fire Sail”.
Firenze tells his story. (This expands on information given in “Five Portraits”.)
Firenze had always been a hothead. His parents tolerated him and kept bailing him out of trouble.
But one day, Firenze realised that his parents were worried about something else.
His father told him that there were many alternative realities, some of which were shifted in time relative to their own. In one alternative reality, more advanced that theirs, people had discovered how to cross the boundaries between realities. And now they wanted to invade Firenze’s reality, take the land and make the current occupants their servants.
But the people of Firenze’s reality had decided to pool their magic and destroy everyone – both the invaders and the current occupants. It was called MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction.
All they could hope for was to save some of the children. There was a cable car line that crossed realities. Firenze’s parents would put him in a cable car, which hopefully he could ride to safety.
So they put him in the cable car. The car left his home reality and continued on past several stations. Then he arrived at another station where there were two women, who told him to get out. These were Demoness Fornax and Astrid Basilisk. [According to “Fire Portraits”, there was also a third woman present, Demoness Dysnomia, whose power of Lawlessness enabled Astrid and the children to cross the realities.]
Four other children arrived in the cable cars. Fornax and Astrid [and Dysnomia] brought the children back to Astrid and Fornax’s reality.
Ula and Firenze each recognise the hardship that the other had gone through, and realise they love and respect each other. They kiss, and hearts appear in the air.
Squid, who has been observing this, lets the scene fade. She realises that each of the original five siblings is being paired with a native Xanthian: Firenze and Ula, Squid herself with Larry, Myst with Piton and Santo with Noe. In Win’s case she is fast friends with Data; no doubt they will go boy-hunting together in future.
Santo sends a mental message to Squid that Larry is approaching the Good Magician’s Castle and is about to tackle the Challenges. Squid should tune in. Larry is not speaking Squid’s name, but Laurelai is thinking about her. (Squid realises that Santo had received that information from Fornax.)
Larry proceeds with the Challenges, and is eventually successful. He comes to the castle door.
There he meets Wira, the Good Magician’s daughter-in-law. She addresses him as Laurelai, so she is obviously aware of his situation. She takes him to the Gorgon, who is the Good Magician’s current Designated Wife.
The Gorgon tells him that the missions which the Good Magician sends querents on can be obscure, but it is necessary to persist, and the querent generally achieves their Answer in the end, but not necessarily in the way they expected. She is aware that Larry will be asked to have Squid as a girlfriend, and tells him to give her a chance.
Wira returns and takes Larry in to see the Good Magician.
The Magician tells Larry, “For your Service you will join the crew of Fibot, and serve there as much of a year as is needful. You will befriend the seeming girl Squid and call her your girlfriend. Squid is the most important person you will ever encounter. You must support her completely, and protect her to the best of your ability, even if it puts your life in peril.”
Larry wants to protest, but then he stops himself.
Squid, who has been observing, wonders about this, but then realises that Fornax had told Laurelai to agree to what the Good Magician is saying.
And it becomes apparent that the Good Magician knows Squid is watching (even though she is not physically present), because her turns to her and says, “The fate of the universe depends on you, Squid.”
The Good Magician turns back to Larry and tells him that Fibot is arriving. He needs to be ready to board. Wira takes Larry out to the courtyard.
Fibot is arriving in the courtyard of the Good Magician’s Castle. Squid goes on deck.
As usual Win is at the helm. Her talent is that the wind is always at her back, which is useful for blowing wind at the sail when there is no wind. As they arrive she shuts down the wind (although it never completely disappears). Firenze takes down the fiery sail: handling the sail comes naturally to him because of his hot hands.
The rest of the crew come on deck.
Squid sees Larry in the courtyard, with Wira and the Gorgon. She jumps off the boat and goes to him.
Telling him this is only while they are in public, she kisses him. This demonstrates that they are a couple. Instead of hearts appearing, multiple miniature question marks appear in the air. Everyone is surprised; they have never seen that before.
Larry says he is glad to be with her, as she knows his situation, and is familiar with the Fire Boat. Squid explains about her new talent of attuning, and that she had seen him tackle the Challenges and had seen him talk to Wira, the Gorgon and the Good Magician.
She takes him on board and introduces him to the rest of the crew. She tells him he can have his own room, or he can share with her. (Myst is now sharing a room with Piton.) After all, she says, they are children, and can’t do anything forbidden by the Adult Conspiracy. Larry chooses to share a room with her.
[Early in the Xanth series, the Adult Conspiracy was conceived as a conspiracy by adults to prevent children doing or knowing things they shouldn’t, in particular, how to summon the stork which brings babies. By this point in the series, it also appears to be an impersonal force, preventing people from doing things they shouldn’t.]
Squid tells Larry about the dancing. Dell and Nia are conducting classes this week, and then the children will go on tour with Magnus and Jess next week.
Santo comes to their door. He says that now that all five siblings are on board, along with five non-sibling associates, they will have a Sibling Conference. Each sibling will take their companion with them. He leaves to meet up with Noe.
Squid holds Larry’s hand as she strikes a match. This transports them to the Playground, which has the appearance of a typical children’s playground. (This mechanism was previously used in “Five Portraits”. It is the usual way they attend a Sibling Conference, but they don’t necessarily need to be in the Playground to have a Sibling Conference.)
Squid tells Larry that the Playground is folded up into a miniature bag (or purse) that Santo keeps in his room. (In “Five Portraits”, it was in the form of a matchbox.) But for them it appears to be wide open.
The others arrive, two by two. Ula and Noe are not surprised at the location; they have been here before. [This means, of course, that the siblings had brought Ula and Noe to the Playground since they arrived on Fibot; however there had been no Sibling Conference at the time.]
Santo tells them all to gather in a circle, with couples together. (Win and Data are just friends, and therefore are a pair rather than a couple.)
Santo tells them about the five children who were rescued from the future, and how they came to regard each other as siblings. But this does not exclude other relationships. The five other children (Ula, Noe, Larry, Data and Piton) would now be considered “virtual siblings”.
The siblings had discovered that they could come together in a conference, which would clarify their situation. All five siblings have to be present, and for this reason they have not had a conference for some time. But now something big is looming, and their mission is limited to children. All their powers would be amplified to handle what they might encounter. And Squid will have an important role to play, as well as being the protagonist of the current story.
Santo says they will now enter the conference and hopes that their mission will be clarified. The conference is also like a dance. He tells them to link hands around the circle and focus on nirvana – a state of quiet mental bliss.
As they do so, the playground fades out. They feel as if they are floating in a sky of pastel colours with a gentle music background. They are sharing each other’s thoughts and merging together into a whole, expanding and becoming one with the universe.
Then Squid drifts away from the others. She orients on something familiar. It is her cousin, Cuttle, who is sleeping, on her home planet. He had intended to come with her to Xanth at the time she and her parents visited in the alternative reality, but had not been able to due to a schedule conflict. He is dreaming, and grieving for her death.
But Squid speaks to him, and tells him she had survived, travelling fifty years into the past. She has been able to visit him because of the sibling conference.
Cuttle tells her that there is some great danger – danger that she must stop. Squid wonders about that; she keeps on getting the same message.
But now she must return. She orients on the group again and returns to the Playground. The conference is over.
Everyone is elated from the experience. They feel as if they are on the right track.
Santo makes a hole, which takes them from the Playground into his closet where the Playground purse is stored. They all return to their rooms.
The next day, Nia teaches them the Triangle Dance. This is a humorous dance, which is not well known, so would be new to audiences, and would make them laugh. [This is NOT the dance you will find if you do a search on the Internet. It appears to have been made up by the author for this story.]
After the dance is finished, Nia makes an announcement. Picka and Dawn have invited her and Dell to stay for a week at Caprice Castle. Magnus and Jess will be there too. The Castle and its occupants will be visiting Picka’s skeleton relatives on the island of Skeleton Key. This island is one of the Sometime Islands; these islands appear and disappear, and are not all accessible from Xanth at the same time. But the visit is also to give Nia and Dell a break from looking after the children. The children will remain on board Fibot, and have a chance to practise being independent of adults.
Tata and the peeve will be in control of the boat. The boat will remain in the sky over the other islands which belong to Xanth Proper. The children should practise their dances over the week, so they will be ready to join Magnus and Jess’s tour when the adults return.
They will be going to Skeleton Key tomorrow.
Back in their cabin, Squid and Larry discuss the fact that the adults are unaware of the looming crisis. They just think they are taking a break from the children.
The next day Fibot flies to the chain of islands called the Keys. Caprice Castle is sitting on Skeleton Key, an island shaped like a human skull.
They land, and Dell and Nia go to greet Picka and Dawn. Magnus and Jess join them. The children watch. Then Nia says goodbye, and the six adults enter the castle.
(At other times there have been other people staying in the castle as well. Evidently there aren’t any others at present – at least for the visit to Skeleton Key.)
The children return to the boat. They take off and hover over the island. Skeleton Key fades out.
The children get together with Tata and the peeve to make sure they are on the same page. The peeve says they know something big is going to happen, but they don’t know any details. Santo fills them in what details they know of the mission.
Over the next week, the children practise their dancing, until they become perfect. However, all the time they expect some crisis to occur. But nothing happens.
On the seventh day, Santo announces that they have graduated. Tata projects a holographic movie of their dances, so they can see themselves as the audience would see them. They all agree they have performed well.
The next day they wait for Skeleton Key to reappear. And it does. But Caprice Castle is missing!
They land on the island and get out of the boat.
Two skeletons approach, a male and a female. They say they are cousins of Picka’s father, Marrow Bones. They had had a nice visit from the people of Caprice Castle. But then one day the castle was gone. The visitors had not said goodbye. And it is difficult to leave the Sometime Islands when they are not aligned with Xanth. The skeletons had searched the island, but the castle could not be found.
It seems that the crisis has occurred.
The skeletons say that the island is about to fade out again. So the children return to the boat and take off.
They get together with Tata and the peeve. Tata tells them (via the peeve) that it seems that the castle and its occupants have been abducted. Only a Demon could have done this. And that Demon is most likely a collector of valuable things, such as a travelling castle or a flying boat. Maybe the Demon will want to take possession of Fibot too.
Tata recommends evasive action. Win and Data go to the tiller, and Firenze and Ula go to the sail. They will make a series of erratic course changes, so their course is unpredictable.
The others gather for a council of war.
Myst says she wishes they could know what had happened to the castle and its occupants. Squid wonders if there is some way they can sneak into the Sometime Islands to have a look.
Tata tells them about Ion and Hilda, the 9-year-old twin children of Prince Hilarion and Princess Ida. Hilarion comes from the island kingdom of Adamant, one of the Sometime Islands. But Ida’s duties require her to spend a fair amount of time at Castle Roogna in the Kingdom of Xanth. As a result, Ion and Hilda travel regularly between the Sometime Islands and Xanth, using a route only they know and can traverse. Maybe they can help.
[The story “Esrever Doom” mentions a daughter of Ida and Hilarion called Ione, whom Kody meets as he tackles the Challenges for entering the Good Magician’s Castle. She was 2 years old at the time, which would make her a similar age to Ion and Hilda. Ione isn’t mentioned in the current book. What happened to her? I think the author has forgotten about her. The current book states that there are no other children at the castle in Adamant, or at Castle Roogna.
Or maybe there is no such person as Ione; maybe another child was performing the role as part of the Challenges.]
It is decided that Squid and Larry will contact Ion and Hilda.
Tata tells them that Ion and Hilda have Magician-level talents. Ion’s talent is that he is immune to elixirs, including healing elixir. When he broke his legs in an accident, they did not heal, so he uses a flying carpet to travel.
Santo says that this probably means that he can eat or drink anything without being harmed, and that he is immune to snake and insect bites. He is probably also immune to lethe water (which makes people lose their memories) and love elixir.
Tata says that Hilda’s talent is magical sewing. For example, if she sews a kitchen apron, the person who wears it becomes a very good cook. In fact, she is the one who sewed Myst’s panty.
They decide they will drop Squid and Larry off near Castle Roogna. There is no certain way for them to get back to the boat, but with Squid’s talent of attuning, she should be able to detect where the boat is, and arrange to be nearby when they want to return.
Soon the boat comes close to Castle Roogna. Squid and Larry say goodbye and leave the boat.
They set off towards the castle. It is nighttime.
As they arrive at the castle, they meet a zombie, who is one of the castle guardians. Squid asks him to bring Ion and Hilda out to meet them. Soon the zombie returns with the twins. Ion is floating on a flying carpet.
Squid and Larry introduce themselves, and tell the twins they need their help with a dangerous mission. But the mission is secret, so they mustn’t tell anyone else.
The twins say that their mother, Princess Ida, would know anyway: since she is the Sorceress of the Idea, she knows everything. And they won’t be allowed to go anywhere if she doesn’t know about it. Squid agrees to talk to their mother.
The twins take them into the castle and to Ida’s room, where they meet Princess Ida.
Ida has a late dinner set out for the four children. It seems she was expecting them!
Ida tells them that she is glad to have other children visiting Ion and Hilda. They don’t get much chance to socialise. She initially assumes that Squid and Larry have come to play games with the twins, but when she looks at Squid and Larry she realises that it is something more serious. In fact she seems to know all about it.
She gives her permission for Squid and Larry to travel with Ion and Hilda. Although the mission is dangerous, she says that it is not as dangerous as inaction would be.
She tells them to stay the night in Castle Roogna. They can leave in the morning.
Hilda tells Squid that their route to the Sometime Islands is devious; no one else can use it. Squid and Larry will have to trust Ion and Hilda to guide them.
The four children set off in the morning.
Squid becomes alarmed when they head for a tangle tree; this kind of tree has tentacles, and grabs and eats any living thing within reach. She wonders if they can really trust Ion and Hilda. But Larry reassures her: the twins are a Magician and a Sorceress, they have made this journey before, and besides, their mother permits them to make the journey.
As they come near the tangle tree, Ion floats up and squirts it with a spritz bottle. The tree withdraws its tentacles violently.
Hilda explains that the spritz bottle contains essence of stink horn fragrance. Ion is immune to all elixirs. As a result, he can use all elixirs without harm, and collects all kinds.
The twins tell them their route passes through a portal, with potentially awkward results. Squid realises they are not telling the whole story.
Soon they come to the portal, which is a massive gateway. They pass through, and Squid has a feeling that something strange has happened. Then she realises: their genders have been swapped! Squid and Hilda are now boys; Larry and Ion are now girls.
Their clothing no longer fits; they strip them off. Actually, Squid is not wearing clothing: she uses her transformation ability to emulate clothing on her body – although on other occasions she wears clothes.
Larry is impressed. He has now achieved his wish to become a girl. He uses his talent to advance his age and becomes a beautiful shapely woman. They go to a pool where he admires his reflection. Larry has become Laurelai!
[From this point on, whenever characters change gender, the related pronouns, “he” and “she” are swapped. I found it a bit disconcerting, having to keep track of which pronoun relates to which character. Having got used to Squid being referred to as “she”, it is a bit confusing when she is referred to as “he”. It is a little easier with Larry/Laurelai, as the name gives the clue to the current gender.]
Laurelai reverts to her proper age. They harvest new clothing from clothing trees and put them on.
They come to a village called Portal, where Ion and Hilda usually stay when they follow this route. Hilda tells them they have to earn their keep. Hilda can do some sewing and Ion can use a potion to purify their water. Squid and Laurelai say they can dance, and they can demonstrate their dances to others. But they will have to practise dancing in the opposite genders.
Ion tells them that some adults come through the portal to experience the gender swap, so they can spice up their marriages with the reversed roles.
They come to the village inn, which is called the Inn & Outt. The proprietor comes out and greets them. He tells them that there is a polluted spring that they want Ion to purify, and there are girls who need Hilda to sew them new dresses. Hilda introduces Squid and Laurelai. Squid and Laurelai tell him they will demonstrate some dances; although they are young, they can do a dance that grownups will like.
The proprietor takes them to their room. Ion and Hilda leave to perform their jobs.
Squid and Laurelai decide on a dance called False Step. This is one they know, although they will have to practise in their reversed gender roles, and it will be pleasing to adults as well as children.
But it is a dance that is best performed by people who are older; if performed by children it may appear to be a joke. Laurelai can advance her age, and maybe Squid can fake maturity.
But Laurelai believes that her talent has been enhanced so that she can take Squid with her as she ages. She puts her arms around Squid, and advances both their ages: Laurelai is now 17, and Squid is 16.
Squid feels strange male feelings in his body and an attraction toward Laurelai. But how can this be? Squid is really an alien cuttlefish.
Laurelai points out that Squid’s talent of emulation has been enhanced to the point of true transformation; Squid has actually been transformed into a human.
The dance includes a kiss. Maybe they should kiss now, to ensure they are okay with it. As they kiss, half a heart appears in the air; Squid is in love with Laurelai, but Laurelai is not in love with Squid.
They practise the dance, so they are familiar with it in the reversed gender roles. There are lots of tricky steps involved.
The twins return from their jobs. Hilda starts work on making costumes for Squid and Laurelai. He (Hilda) is surprised that he is able to do it twice as fast as before; his talent has been enhanced as well.
The time comes to perform the dance. The inn proprietor takes them out to the village square, where a crowd has gathered.
Squid introduces the dance, False Step, which is a story told in dance form. Ion opens a can, from which canned music pours out. As Laurelai and Squid perform the dance, Hilda narrates the story.
The villagers applaud; they are impressed.
Then Squid and Laurelai teach the dance to the villagers.
Afterwards, Squid and Laurelai revert to their proper ages.
The next morning the four children set off again. Ion tells them they will have to cross a land bridge into the Sometime Isles. It is surrounded by Lethe water, so Ion is the only person who remembers it. Since the islands are not all present in the Xanth realm at the same time, the bridge connects to whichever of the Sometime Isles is there at the time. And the islands within the Sometime Realm keep changing their positions relative to each other, so it can take a while to reach Adamant Isle.
They come to a swamp, which is full of Lethe water. They wade across to the island on the other side, keeping contact with Ion, who is using her talent to nullify the effect.
They come to the land bridge. Squid sees a shimmer halfway across, marking the boundary between Now and Sometime. They cross to the next island.
Hilda warns them that they shouldn’t swim in the water between the islands: there are allegations ready to chomp them – these are a Xanthian lifeform similar to alligators. Usually Hilda sews a boat that is impervious to predator teeth, and Ion floats across on her carpet, pulling the boat on a cord. Or Hilda sews a swimsuit that encloses his body and smells of stink horn. It’s a slow process travelling across the islands.
Squid thinks of something else that might work. He can transform into an Aether Oarfish. Tata had researched such a creature. It is a long ribbon-like fish that is either in one place or another. It either stays put, or jumps instantly to the place it is looking.
Squid wants to make sure that his transformation to the oarfish is real, rather than just an emulation. He transforms into an oarfish and looks across to the next island. Then suddenly he is at the next island. He jumps back, and reverts to human.
But how do they find the island where Caprice Castle is? And Squid wonders if Ion and Hilda want to go home to Adamant Isle. But the twins say they want to come with Squid and Laurelai.
Squid wonders if he can use his attuning talent to tune in on someone at Caprice Castle. Normally someone would have to say Squid’s name, but sometimes Squid has managed to tune in on a person’s thought. And since their talents are being enhanced, maybe Squid can think of a person and evoke that person’s thought of Squid.
He decides to tune in on Jess, the prior protagonist. He projects a thought to Jess and gets a faint reply. This gives him the direction to Caprice Castle.
Squid transforms to the oarfish. The others grab on. They jump to the next island. They continue on from island to island, until at last they come to an island where they see Caprice Castle. The four children enter the castle.
At first the castle seems empty. But then, in the central court they find a glassy display case containing the six adults. They are frozen in place, apparently in suspended animation.
Squid tries to communicate mentally with Jess, and gets a response. Jess tells Squid to touch her. Jess reminds Squid of her (Jess’s) nature, and then tells Squid to bring Fibot and all the others to this place. They can put on a show, with all their dances.
Squid agrees. He tells his companions about the conversation. They leave the castle.
But once outside, he tells the others about Jess’s curse: no one takes her seriously. This is what Jess had meant when she reminded Squid of her nature: They must not bring Fibot and the crew to this place. No doubt the Demon was controlling Jess and forcing her to say what she had said.
But what will happen to the six adults if they don’t bring Fibot? Maybe they will be destroyed.
Laurelai suggests that they return to Fibot and have a Sibling Conference to work out what they should do. Ion suggests they should return to Princess Ida and ask her what they should do.
But the mission is supposed to be limited to children. The four vote and decide on the Sibling Conference.
But Hilda wants to check in with their father first, so that he doesn’t worry about them.
Laurelai suggests to Squid that Squid’s attuning talent may have been enhanced sufficiently so Squid can send a thought to Ion and Hilda’s father, King Hilarion.
[This is the first time we are told that Hilarion is now king of Adamant. All previous references have called him Prince Hilarion. In fact, earlier in this current story, Tata had referred to him as Prince Hilarion; I imagine that his ascension to the throne is relatively recent, and Tata’s data bank had not been updated with this fact yet.]
Squid sends a mental message to King Hilarion, telling him that he, Squid, is with Hilarion’s children. Hilarion responds, which gives Squid the direction to Adamant Isle. Squid transforms to the oarfish, and they continue on, travelling from island to island till they come to the castle on Adamant Isle. King Hilarion welcomes his children, and they introduce Squid and Laurelai to him. But he is a busy man and hurries off.
But Hilarion had not seemed to notice Ion and Hilda’s gender change. Ion says their father is used to them turning up in their opposite genders.
The four children are served a sumptuous dinner by the castle staff, and then spend the night in the castle. Squid and Laurelai notice that there are no other children in the castle; Ion and Hilda must get lonely. Squid suggests that they ask the siblings to let Ion and Hilda join them on Fibot.
So the next morning, the four children take the return journey: travelling from island to island, back to the Portal Village, where they entertain the villagers again. Then the day after that, they return through the portal and swap back to their original genders. Laurelai becomes Larry again, and is depressed about the change.
They return to near Castle Roogna. Squid sends a mental message to Santo, and soon Fibot arrives. The four children board.
Squid introduces Ion and Hilda to the rest of the crew. Myst and Piton take Hilda off to show her around.
Win puts the boat on autopilot, and she and Data come down belowdecks. Squid tells them about Ion’s disability. She suggests that Win can help Ion move around by providing wind to his carpet. Data says she can turn into her skeleton form and hold him up to help him walk. Win, Data and Ion go off together.
Squid and Larry meet with Santo and tell him everything about their adventure. They need to work out how to rescue the six adults in Caprice Castle. They discuss several options.
They consider the option of taking Fibot through the Portal. But how will the rest of the children cope with the gender change? Santo thinks that the Sibling Conference could be adapted as a simulation: they could try it out before doing it in reality.
The next day, the twelve children (including Ion and Hilda), plus Tata and the peeve, gather in the main hall. Santo tells them about the proposal: to try the gender change in a simulation.
The children return to their rooms to prepare, and in due course return to the hall. Santo tells them to form a circle and hold hands. They should focus and enter the simulation.
They find themselves standing in an open field. Santo tells Tata to take Fibot (within the simulation) along the route the twins had taken. The outline of the boat appears around them, and the outside scenery appears to move. The boat follows the route and comes to the portal. And then passes through. Their genders change.
Santo tells Tata to stop the boat.
They now need to get used to their changed bodies. Noe suggests they dance. So they perform the square dance, in their reversed gender roles.
They decide to put on costumes, so they return to their cabins to put them on. Laurelai takes the opportunity to advance her and Squid’s ages by several years. They all return for more dancing.
They decide to extend the simulation, and go to Portal Village to demonstrate their dances. So the boat continues on and comes to the village.
Squid, Laurelai, Ion and Hilda get out and go and explain the situation to the proprietor of the Inn & Outt.
The proprietor is interested in their flying boat. He asks if the villagers can have a tour of it. They check with Santo, who puts it to a vote. They agree to the tour.
The children go to the village square and put on a demonstration square dance, then teach the villagers.
Squid’s partner is a girl called Ruby. Squid remains at his older age, and Ruby is apparently a similar age. Squid notices that Laurelai is popular with the boys. He feels a bit jealous.
Ruby tells Squid that their group of young villagers are “genderlings”; they have all had their genders swapped by coming through the portal. But sometimes they like to go back through the portal, to make out in their original genders.
Then the tour of the boat is on. Squid and Ruby join it. But somehow the two of them end up in Squid’s cabin. Ruby kisses Squid and pulls him down onto the bed. As Ruby continues to touch Squid, he becomes consumed with passion.
But then he notices Ruby is crying. She says she was trying to seduce him, but she can’t bring herself to do it: he is too nice and innocent.
Ruby says she is older than she looks; she is actually a young adult. The villagers have been offered a prize if they can seduce one or more people from the boat. They were supposed to induct them into the Adult Conspiracy. The prize is pocket portals: devices that enable them to swap their genders without having to go to the main portal. She thinks there is a Demon involved; maybe it is part of a Demon Wager.
Squid sends a mental message to Santo, who comes to Squid’s room. Squid tells Santo what Ruby had said. Santo thinks that there may be a Demon Wager, such that the Demon can only capture Fibot if there is an adult aboard; but if one of the crew had been seduced, they would technically be an adult.
They stop the other villagers’ attempts at seduction, and order all the villagers off the boat.
Ruby apologises for almost betraying Squid, and Squid still feels friendly towards Ruby. Maybe they can get together again in future. Squid tells her about his attuning talent, and asks her to think of him every now and then, so Squid can respond. Ruby departs.
And then Squid remembers this is a simulation. Ruby is not likely to think of Squid, since they didn’t interact in real life.
Fibot returns through the portal and sails back to near Castle Roogna. They decide that they can’t take the route through the portal to achieve their mission. The simulation ends.
That night Squid wakes up from her sleep; someone was thinking about her. It was Ruby: Ruby thought she had dreamed about them meeting. Squid responds: yes they had met. They are both glad.
The next morning, Squid wakes up feeling unwell. Larry, who is holding her hand, says it is freezing cold. Squid says that is what happens with her species: they get a chill rather than a fever.
Larry calls in Tata, who tells them (via the peeve) that Squid has a tentacular virus; it tends to get in when her kind is over-stressed. They don’t have the required medication, and by the time they can get it, she will likely have recovered. She may get hallucinations, but they are harmless.
Squid sees a panel open in the wall, and beyond it a lovely garden path. Her vision of the people in the cabin fades. But she can still feel Larry’s hand, and hear him when he speaks. She tells him what she sees in her hallucination.
She goes through the panel to the garden path. She sees various strange things there. She finds two beanie caps with spinning blades: propeller caps – actually a Propel Her and a Propel Him. She puts one on and it enables her to fly.
The hallucination is a reflection of what’s in her mind: Squid and Larry wonder whether it can provide the answer to her problem: whether she is truly the most important person in the universe, and what she should do about it.
Now Larry, Tata and the peeve have entered the hallucination with her. Larry is wearing one of the propeller caps and is flying; the peeve is also flying, and Tata the dogfish is swimming through the air.
Squid needs the key to her question. And a key should be on a keyboard. She needs a path to where she should go.
A path appears in the sky, with hand rails either side. They land on the path.
A keyboard should be on a wall, which needs to be on some kind of structure. Larry suggests she should make it a castle.
They follow the path and come to a castle in the air, labelled “Air Castle”. They enter.
There is a sign: “Air Castle shut down for the night. Personnel will return in the morning.” So they make their way to a guest suite, and spend the night there.
In the morning when they leave the suite, they find a sign that says, “Return of personnel delayed. Go anywhere but here.” And there is a map showing the location of a room they shouldn’t go to.
So of course they go there. There is a sign on the door which says, somewhat strangely, “Unauthorized Personnel Only”. They go in.
There is a mirror on the wall, and a sign above it that says, “Here there be answers.” It must be a magic mirror. And then more text appears below the mirror, “But you won’t like them.”
They are wary of asking the mirror questions.
There is a keyboard beside the mirror, with various keys. Squid takes one that appeals to her: it is a skeleton key; it is in the shape of a skeleton finger, with a grotesquely hooked nail. She tucks it into her hair. (This key would prove useful on a few occasions in their subsequent adventure.)
They leave the room and explore the rest of the castle, but find nothing of consequence. They return to the forbidden room and enter again.
Squid addresses the mirror, asking if she is the most important person in the universe. The mirror answers yes. Squid asks why and it says, “Because the universe depends on you for its existence.”
The mirror says, “You must struggle with two or three absolute horrors, and if you lose, the universe is doomed.”
A picture appears in the mirror. It is Squid’s sister, Win. She says, “You must kill me, Squid. Because if you don’t, the universe will perish.” She fades out.
Then an image of Larry appears in the mirror. But when he speaks, there is something frighteningly alien in his voice. He says, “You can’t kill me. But you need to persuade me not to kill you.”
The real Larry tells Squid that he would never try to destroy her, and confesses that he loves her.
The mirror Larry says, “This isn’t over. There is worse coming.” He fades out.
Tata tells Squid and Larry, via the peeve, that they have been given a glimpse of the future. What they have seen and heard is all true.
The castle dissolves. Squid finds herself falling through the sky, and she screams.
Squid finds herself back in her cabin in Fibot, still screaming. The rest of the crew rush in.
She tells them she had had a hallucination. Seeing Win there, she tells how she had been told in her dream that she would have to kill Win, or the universe would end.
Larry tells them that he, and Tata and the peeve, had also been in the hallucination. Tata tells them that what they had seen was a true prophecy.
Santo says they need to change this predicted future. They should take a random course, so their destination can’t be predicted. Ultimately they want to arrive at Caprice Castle by surprise, so that Piton and Data can operate the castle, and move it back to Xanth proper, before the Demon realises what is happening.
Ion says he and Hilda are familiar with random travelling. He suggests that they all write a destination on a piece of paper. Then one of the papers can be drawn at random. They can then go to that destination. After that they can try to get to Caprice Castle again.
So they all write down their ideas. The papers are collected into a basket, and Santo draws one out. He reads, “The World of Talent, one of Ida’s Moons, where folk go to win a talent.” This is Data’s paper.
Data says that when they get to Talent, she wants to take a companion with her, when she goes to find a talent. So Santo draws again and selects Squid’s paper. She will be Data’s companion.
Tata provides the coordinates of the World of Talent. In due course, Santo creates a tunnel to their destination, and Fibot passes through, and arrives in Talent.
Data and Squid leave the boat, which becomes invisible.
Data doesn’t know where to go. Squid thinks her skeleton key might help. She gets it out of her hair, holds it out and asks it where they can find a useful talent. It occurs to the girls at this point that it is a bit strange that Squid still has the key that she found in her hallucination. The key points in a particular direction and they find a path there.
They come to an alcove with a pedestal. On it is a statue of a bald man. There is a plaque that says: “Talent: Growing instant fur.” There is a button labelled Demo. Data presses the button.
Fur grows all over the statue. There is additional writing below the plaque: “The price of this talent is five percent of your soul.”
But Data doesn’t want this talent. Squid asks the skeleton key again, and it points to another path. They continue on. They find some other talent demonstrations along the way, but none of them interest Data.
Then the path splits into several paths. But most of these paths lead to dangerous areas.
The final path has a sign that says: “Choose your disability.” There are several objects there; they each have to choose one to proceed:
- a pane of glass: when Squid touches it, she experiences terrible pain.
- a question mark: when Data touches it, she becomes hopelessly confused.
- a pair of ear muffs: when Data puts them on she becomes deaf.
- a white cane: when Squid picks it up, she becomes blind.
- a wheelchair: when Data sits in it, her legs become paralysed.
Squid decides she can manage the wheelchair. She can move the wheels with her hands, or Data can push her. Data decides she can manage being blind, and takes the white cane. Squid can guide her.
So they proceed in this way, with some difficulty. But then they come to a foggy field, where Squid can’t see very far ahead. Data goes ahead of her, feeling with her cane, but it is slow going.
Then they hear a voice in front of them. A girl emerges from the fog. She says her name is Nicole. She is naturally blind, and knows her way around, so she hadn’t even known there was a fog. She had come to the World of Talent to obtain the talent of sight, but the price was too high – half of her soul – so she hadn’t taken it. But now she has to wait until next month to be picked up, to return to her home planet of Puzzle.
Squid proposes that Nicole guide them to some suitable talents, and then they can take Nicole home in Fibot. Nicole suggests that Data might like the talent of the cold snap: you snap your fingers, and the air within range of the sound gets horribly cold, so that ice even forms. This could be useful if she is attacked by a monster. It would cost five percent of her soul.
So she leads them out of the fog and to another pedestal. Nicole presses the demo button, there is a snap, and shards of ice appear over the pedestal. They can feel the cold air.
Data puts her hand on the pedestal and announces she is taking the talent. She feels a jolt as it takes part of her soul.
Nicole leads them to the exit of the disabilities section. Squid regains the use of her legs, and Data can see again.
Squid says the word “Fibot”, and the boat, which had been tracking them, appears. They take Nicole on board and introduce her to the others. Santo tells Nicole they are on a secret mission, so she mustn’t tell other people about them.
They work out the location of Nicole’s world, Puzzle, Santo opens a tunnel to it, and Fibot sails through.
They land on the planet Puzzle.
Squid helps Nicole off the boat. Nicole tells her she can find her way home, and departs.
Santo is recovering from the effort of creating an interplanetary tunnel. Noe discusses their plans with Squid. This world can be treated as another random location. It contains puzzles. Maybe there is a puzzle which will enable them to reach Caprice Castle, without alerting any Demons.
The next morning they all have a meeting. Santo tells them that Tata had researched the planet. It has puzzles of many kinds. The section they are in has mazes. The mazes have various shapes, and there is a prize if you get to the centre. The prize relates to the shape of the maze.
There is a castle-shaped maze, and the prize is private transport to the castle represented by the maze. This one resembles Caprice Castle. They hope by trying this maze to get to Caprice Castle.
There is another maze which is in the shape of an attractive woman – a corn maiden. The prize in this case is a tryst with the maiden in the centre – although being children, and mostly girls, they are not interested in that prize.
Santo says they should split up into two teams: one to tackle the castle maze and the other to tackle the corn-maiden maze. This will possibly hide their purpose from anyone spying on them.
Squid, Piton, Myst, Firenze and Ula form the team for the corn-maiden maze, and Larry, Data, Win, Hilda and Ion form the team for the castle maze. Santo and Noe will remain in Fibot.
The corn-maiden maze has paths winding through thickly growing corn stalks. Squid’s team make their way through the maze, encountering and overcoming various hazards, and finally make it to the centre, where they meet Cornelia, the Corn Maiden.
Seeing that they are children, Cornelia calls another woman, Maizy, who puts on a popcorn party for them. Maizy’s sister, Maisy, arrives, and demonstrates how she can grow mini-mazes, which are much easier to see and solve than the big maze.
While the rest of the team are involved with this, Squid settles down by herself and tunes in to the other group.
Larry tells her what had happened. The castle maze is an actual castle. The team had made their way across the moat via the drawbridge and through the gardens. Now they are trying to get into the castle. There are five entrances with complicated puzzles as locks, and a team member is at each entrance trying to unlock it.
Squid makes a suggestion about how Larry can unlock his lock, by using his talent, and this proves to be successful. Larry calls the other team members and they all enter.
As they pass through the rooms of the castle, they are opposed by a series of creatures: ghosts, zombies, skeletons, dragons and tigers, but by using their talents and abilities, the team overcome them.
They come at last to a man behind a desk. He says he is Comper, director of the puzzles.
The team had used dance to oppose the skeletons, and the management had filmed it. They now want to use the recording as promotional material. The director asks what they want in return.
Squid communicates with Santo, who says they should ask for private access to a castle whose name begins with CAP. He is cautious about using its full name. Squid communicates this to Larry, saying that the whole crew should be included.
Comper agrees. A green line appears, which leads Larry’s team out to a courtyard. Similar lines lead the team from the corn-maiden maze, and Santo and Noe from Fibot, which is now parked in the courtyard. The crew all gather and board Fibot.
A blue line appears, with a sign saying “To CAP Castle”. They take off.
Fibot follows the blue line into a blue cloud and out the other side. And there is the castle ahead of them.
They land in the castle’s courtyard. Piton and Data enter the castle to take control of it. But a moment later they come out again – this is not Caprice Castle! It is called Caprine Castle; it has the same floor plan as Caprice.
Two people come out into the courtyard. They give their names as Burt Buck and Nancy Nanny. They welcome the travellers to the castle, which is used a holiday location for tourists.
Squid and Larry talk to Burt and Nancy. They explain that they had intended to visit a different castle.
Burt and Nancy explain that all sorts of entertainments are available in the castle, hinting that this might include the sexual kind. They explain that they are Caprines – human/goat crossbreeds, although they are human in appearance. They become adult at three, and their law applies in the castle, rather than the laws (such as the Adult Conspiracy) which might apply in the visitors’ home world. However, visitors do not have to do what they do not wish to do.
Squid and Larry thank them, but say they have somewhere else to go. They board Fibot, which takes off.
And they come to a similar castle. It is Porcine Castle, where they are greeted by Boris Boar and Sonya Sow, who are human/pig crossbreeds.
And so Fibot travels on, coming in turn to
- Bovine Castle (human/cow crossbreeds),
- Ovine Castle (human/sheep crossbreeds),
- Equine Castle (human/horse crossbreeds),
- Lupine Castle (human/wolf crossbreeds),
- Canine Castle (human/dog crossbreeds), and
- Feline Castle (human/cat crossbreeds).
The castles are clearly all part of a group of similar castles.
The Fibot crew discuss what to do and make the following decisions:
- They will return to Caprine Castle and investigate. There might be clues there which will help them rescue Caprice Castle.
- They should be on guard, as the Caprines may have seduction in mind.
- They should not say no outright. They should seem amenable, merely cautious about committing.
- They can flirt with the Caprines, but not too seriously.
- They should murmur Squid’s name every so often, or think of her, so she can tune in to them.
They return to Caprine Castle. Squid and Larry talk to Burt and Nancy again. They tell the Caprines they have visited the other castles, but Caprine is the one they prefer. The Fibot crew are not ready to stay, but they want to learn about the Caprines.
Burt accepts this, but says they insist that each visitor is paired with one of the Caprines, so that all interactions are personal.
Members of the Fibot team come out to meet the Caprines, two by two, and are escorted into Caprine Castle by pairs of Caprines, until there are 8 of the crew in the castle. Squid and Larry return to the boat.
Santo has said Squid’s name, so Squid tunes in to him, where he is in a castle room with Nancy.
Nancy is surprised to learn from Santo that he is gay, as he had had a lady friend – Noe – with him on entry to the castle. Santo explains that Noe is not really his girlfriend. They don’t have a relationship, but Santo likes her very much.
Nancy takes out a device, which she refers to as a portable portal, and uses it to swap her gender. She is now male, and says that Santo can now call her Naldo. The human/animal crossbreeds have a collection of these devices.
Naldo suggests that Noe could use one of these to convert to male. It is obvious to him that Santo and Noe are fond of each other.
Naldo goes to the wall and presses a button of a communication device. He asks Burt to bring Noe in. Soon Burt and Noe arrive.
Naldo explains to Noe that he is Nancy in male form, and had used the portable portal to change gender. He illustrates by using the device to change back to Nancy. She suggests that Noe might like to use the portal to turn male for her friend Santo’s sake.
Noe asks Santo whether this is something he wants. Santo says yes. So Noe uses the portal and becomes male. Noe kisses Santo, saying that he loves him.
Santo answers, saying that he loves Noe, too. He realises that he has always loved Noe, and can love Noe even when she is female.
Nancy says that if they join them in the castle, the portal will be theirs.
Santo says they have another mission they must attend to. But after that they would probably be interested.
Now Squid receives a thought from Hilda, and tunes in to her. Hilda is in a castle room with Benny Buck.
Benny is a young adult. He asks Hilda if she would like to have him as her boyfriend. Hilda is interested in an ad hoc relationship, having lived a socially isolated life, but states that it must not extend to violating the Adult Conspiracy.
But she now expresses her concern for her brother Ion. A girl might become interested in him because of his status as a prince, but without really caring for him, because of his disability. How could he trust her?
Benny thinks he has a solution. He goes to a mirror on the wall, and addresses his comments to Mirror Central. It is obviously a magic mirror, part of a shared communication network with the several human/animal crossbreed castles.
Benny says that he remembers a human girl who had come to this planet, Animalia, as a tourist, and had stayed because of their clean environment.
(We have now learnt that the world that Fibot is now on is called Animalia, on which all the human/animal crossbreed castles are located. Fibot arrived on the planet after passing through the blue cloud, after leaving the World of Puzzle.)
(Although Puzzle and Animalia have not been explicitly stated to be Worlds of Ida (also called Moons of Ida), I think we can assume, at this stage in the series, that any world visited by characters from Xanth are Worlds of Ida, unless stated otherwise, or are known planets in our own universe. The Worlds of Ida all have magic, and share a similar culture with Xanth. They have become more accessible as the series progresses, and there seems to be a lot more travel between the worlds than before.)
The mirror replies that the girl was Vinia, aged 10. She took up residence in Equine Castle because she loved horses.
She is sensitive to even minute amounts of toxins in the environment, and she has to remain in her room where the air is constantly purified. Her talent is telekinesis: she can lift and move close objects, up to her own weight, with her mind.
Benny tells Mirror Central to send a shuttle to pick up a party of four at Caprine Castle, to take them to Equine Castle.
Hilda tells Benny that Ion can shield Vinia from toxins as long as he is close to her, because he has a naturally antiseptic environment due to his magic.
Benny takes Hilda to the castle room where Ion is with his Caprine companion, Nola Nanny. He tells them they are going to see Vinia at Equine Castle: she may be the girl for Ion – possibly a permanent girlfriend, rather than the temporary one Nola had been preparing to be.
The four of them go to a castle turret where there is a large basket. They all get in, and two griffins arrive, grab the sides of the basket, and fly away from the castle.
Benny tells them that there are dances each night at one or another of the castles. Tonight it will be at Equine Castle.
They arrive at Equine Castle. They are met by Hero Horse and Mona Mare, who take them to Vinia’s room.
Benny introduces Ion to Vinia, telling her that Ion can’t walk. Vinia goes to Ion, puts her hands on his shoulders, and using her talent of telekinesis, lifts him up from his magic carpet and places his feet on the floor. Ion is pleased.
Vinia says she can continue doing it indefinitely, as long as he is close. It is best if she is touching him, but she can do it less precisely from a short distance.
Ion wonders if she can help him walk. She says that it would be like working a marionette with strings. But she manages to make him walk, synchronising his body with hers, so they are making the same movements. Then they kiss.
Benny and Nola agree that they have a match. But Hilda is still uncertain.
Vinia tells her that she and Ion need each other. She feels that she is breathing more easily because of Ion’s effect on the air.
Now Vinia and Ion dance, facing each other, and moving in unison.
Ion assures Hilda that Vinia is genuine. He has an element of truth mist around him, as part of his inherent nullification of falsity, which makes people tell the truth when they are near him.
Hilda turns to Benny and kisses him, grateful for what he has done for her brother. She tells him that she wants him to come with her in Fibot when they leave Animalia.
Back on Fibot, Squid, who has been observing this, allows the vision to fade. She tells Larry that she needs to report to the others. There is heavy stuff on the bargaining table.
So they have a meeting with those of the crew who are on the boat. The crew members who had gone to Caprine Castle have returned, except for Santo, Noe, Hilda and Ion. Squid tells them what she had learnt from her visions. And she says they should attend the dance at Equine Castle.
Fibot flies to Equine Castle, and the crew leave the boat to enter the castle. Hero Horse and Mona Mare are greeting each arrival.
When Squid meets Hero, he tells her that Ion and Hilda are already here, and Santo and Noe are on their way. All the visitors are ushered into a ballroom in the castle.
Squid sees Ion there, on his feet, with Vinia standing next to him. Squid introduces Vinia to the rest of the crew. Then Hilda arrives with Benny, and Squid introduces Benny to the others. Then the dance begins, and the children all join in. Santo and Noe have arrived by then.
Squid and Larry go to Hero and Mona, and tell them that the Fibot crew are a dance group. They would like to perform an exhibition square dance.
So in due course, their item is announced, and the crew perform the square dance. The audience applaud. Hero asks them to perform another dance, so they perform a circle dance, and then the Triangle.
After this, the children are deluged by people wanting to dance with them.
Squid tells Hero that four of the group – Santo, Noe, Ion and Vinia – want to meet with Hero and Mona, but they want to keep it private while the dance remains in progress.
So shortly afterwards, Hero and Mona usher those four children to a separate room. Squid and Larry go to sit at the edge of the hall so she can tune in to the meeting.
Santo tells Hero and Mona that Ion is diffusing truth elixir into mist, so they will all be speaking with absolute candour. He tells them that the Fibot crew are on a serious mission which must be kept private. Hero says that he and Mona honour confidences; this is a requirement of their job.
Santo tells them about their mission: that they are trying to rescue Caprice Castle and its occupants from a Demon. They need a hidden way of reaching Caprice Castle, so they can get there swiftly and by surprise.
Hero and Mona say they need to give Santo and his companions some background:
Their suite of castles was set up some time ago by an interplanetary consortium interested in hidden power. They bred the human/animal crossbreeds, who looked and seemed human, but were more than half animal. The crossbreeds have no human rights. They are required to do, and permit their guests to do, things which are not acceptable in other places, such as violations of the Adult Conspiracy.
The crossbreeds wish to increase their human component so they are more than half human. If they interbreed with humans, their children will be more than half human, and will be recognised as human, with human rights. Then when the population becomes mostly human, the community as a whole will be recognised as human, and can bargain for improvement.
Santo says the Fibot crew want three things:
- The portable portals,
- Vinia for Ion, to come with the Fibot crew, rather than Ion staying in the castles,
- A safe secret route to Caprice Castle.
Hero says that the first two are feasible; the third is a challenge, but perhaps possible.
Santo says that in return, the Fibot crew will provide a direct physical connection to Portal Village and its neighbouring villages in Xanth, where the residents and tourists are eager for new things.
A fair number of them may be interested in coming to Animalia and mixing with the crossbreeds, and maybe forming families with them. There may also be some willing to breed with multiple partners, in order to produce more children, as long as the children are properly cared for.
They all return to the dance.
An hour later, a cowgirl (that is, a Bovine woman) comes to Squid and tells her they have a guide for the route to Caprice Castle. His name is Fox, and he is from Castle Vulpine (where there are human/fox crossbreeds).
The dance ends and everyone disperses. Squid and Larry join with Ion and Vinia, and then with Santo and Noe. They go out into the courtyard, where they meet a man. He says his name is Fox.
They ask him to come with them as they board Fibot. In the meantime, the rest of the crew have boarded, plus Hilda’s companion, Benny.
Fox tells them he is a synesthesiac. He sees sounds as colours, etc. He sees things in ways other people don’t, so can pick a path that they don’t see. He needs a sound or sight or smell of something to trace it to its source.
Data provides him with a thimble from Castle Caprice. Fox says he can trace it to its source at Caprice Castle.
Santo asks what he wants in return. Fox says all he wants is the love of Dori Doe. She is a Caprine, and Fox loves her, but she wants nothing to do with him. The Animalians have agreed to get her to do this mission with him, to give him a chance to win her. They will find her at Caprine Castle.
Squid shows Fox around the boat and introduces him to the others. She takes him to his assigned room. Fox says he would like a roommate. He doesn’t say so, but Squid realises that he wants that roommate to be Dori.
The boat arrives at Caprine Castle. Squid and Noe go out to the courtyard and meet Dori Doe. She is a very beautiful woman. They take her on board.
Noe tells Dori she will be working with Fox. He wants her to be his roommate, but they can provide a separate room if she prefers. Dori agrees to room with Fox. She says he knows not to touch her without her permission.
Dori says that Fox has a remarkable talent, which is better than hers. Her talent is to see smells. But she really wants to marry a fully-human man, and have children who will be recognised as human. She was willing to join the mission because she knows about the plan to connect with Portal Village, and hopes to find a suitable man there.
She asks that she be provided with a female friend. So Win is assigned that role; she shows Dori round and then takes her to the room she will be sharing with Fox.
Santo and Noe go out to meet Brian Buck and Nadine Nanny, to make arrangements about the connection to Portal Village. Santo would create the tunnel at noon the next day. The Animalians should gather there at that time.
So the next day, a crowd of Animalians are gathered in the Caprine Castle courtyard. Santo creates a man-sized tunnel between the castle and the Portal Village. (This is of course an interplanetary tunnel from the Planet Animalia to the World of Xanth.) Santo retires to the boat, with Noe as company, as maintaining this tunnel is an effort for him.
Squid and Larry go through the tunnel first, to show the Animalians that it is safe, and also to contact the villagers of Portal Village. Squid tells the villagers she needs to talk to Ruby.
Ruby arrives. Squid introduces herself, since the last time Ruby had seen her, she was male. They go to a private room.
Squid and Larry use the portable portals on themselves and swap genders.
Squid tells Ruby the deal. The villagers can have portable portals like these. In exchange they must meet and socialise with the Animalian crossbreeds, and see if any villagers want to marry them. The crossbreeds want to have children who are more than half human. Some of the village men can have multiple crossbreed partners if they want.
Squid and Larry swap back to their original genders. The three of them go outside, and Ruby tells the villagers about the deal. Then the Animalians start coming through the tunnel.
Squid tells the villagers that the tunnel will be open until noon the next day. They can cross both ways. But they must be home before noon the next day unless they decide to stay.
At the end of the day, Squid and Larry return to the boat.
In the end, quite a number of villagers, from Portal Village and other nearby villages, stay with crossbreed partners in Animalia, and a similar number of Animalians stay in Portal Village and nearby villages.
Santo can’t promise to open another tunnel at a later date, as he doesn’t know how their mission will turn out, but he agrees to do it if he can.
Dori would stay with Fibot for the mission, and hopes to find a village man as a partner at the end of the mission. Fox hopes to win her before that.
So the tunnel shuts down as planned, and Santo goes to sleep to recover from the effort. They would not depart Animalia until the next day. This gives the Fibot crew the chance to socialise with the newcomers on board.
Next morning, Santo has recovered. Noe explains how they will proceed. Fox will locate the scent of Caprice Castle which will lead them to a window, which is a portal to another world. Dori can see smells, so she can detect them from further away than Fox can. Fibot will sail in the indicated direction.
Data gives Fox the thimble again. He smells it and passes it to Dori. She says the smell has the colour green.
Dori goes on deck and points up into the sky. That is the direction Fibot should go.
Win, at the helm, generates her wind, and Firenze activates the fire sail. The boat heads in the indicated direction. The Animalians in the courtyard wave goodbye.
Then Dori indicates a new direction, and Fibot sails out over the forest. They come to a rocky field. Fox says he can see the green smell radiating from a centre. It must be a window. He tells Win to land.
They leave the boat and Fox asks for a stepladder. He climbs the ladder and disappears at the top. But then he appears again and comes down.
He tells them the window opens onto a city street on Earth. They will be noticed by the people there. Most of them are men, who look like crude types.
They discuss options, and decide that three females, Dori, Squid and Laurelai, will distract the men while Fox follows the trail to find the next window. Squid and Larry go to their cabin. Larry uses his portal to change to Laurelai, then advances their ages by five years, so they are in their teens. They dress in suitably attractive dresses and return to the others.
The crew return to the boat, except for Fox, who climbs the ladder again. He takes the ladder with him, as the window’s exit is a similar distance above the ground on the other side. He dangles a ribbon to show Fibot where to go. Fibot sails through the window; part of its magic is that it can pass through any size aperture. Fibot is invisible so it will not be noticed.
The place they emerge in is a typical city street of drear Mundania.
Dori, Squid and Laurelai leave the boat, and are immediately the centre of attention. Dori indicates to Fox which way he should go to follow the trail, then the three females walk in a different direction to distract attention from him.
The men in the street start calling out to them, in the foreign language of Mundania. The three females can’t understand them, but Squid can get a sense of what they are saying, which is somewhat crude.
But then men in blue turn up and arrest them, apparently for being “ladies of the evening”. They are taken to a cell and locked in.
But then Fibot appears in the cell. The three females climb on board, and the boat departs, leaving through the cell bars and out of the building.
Fox tells them he had followed their scent, especially Dori’s. Dori kisses him. She says this is just relief at being rescued, not any commitment.
Fox says it may be time to tell her. He is not a crossbreed. He lives at Vulpine Castle because he did an errand for them and they invited him to stay. They had been good to him, not teasing him about his synesthesia the way other people did. He is actually fully human. He was happy to be considered a Vulpine, which is why he adopted the name.
Although the Vulpine girls – the foxy ladies – would be quite happy to be romantically involved with him, it is Dori he is interested in, because she knows what it is like to sense things the way he does.
This changes things for Dori. She now knows that Fox is marriageable according to her definition. From now on her attitude to him is warmer than before.
So Fibot and its occupants continue on, travelling from world to world, passing through windows and following the scent.
In one world, when they have landed and left the boat, Data is attacked by a troll. She snaps her fingers, using the Cold Snap, and the troll freezes in place.
In another world they emerge into a huge storm, which threatens to blow them off course. Win tells them to douse the sail and tie her to the mast. She builds up her wind, from a breeze, to a gale and then a hurricane, and blows away the storm.
But then the boat can’t move forward, and Win can’t let up, or the storm will return. Firenze, Piton, Benny and Fox man the oars, and they move forward. This works due to the magic of Fibot, despite the fact they are not sailing on water.
In the next world they encounter a logjam. Firenze uses his talent to burn a way through.
Eventually they emerge onto an island, and they see the turrets of a castle. It is Caprice Castle.
They stop the boat. Since it is not safe for adults to be on board when they reach the castle, the three adults – Benny, Fox and Dori – leave the boat. Although the children are not sure it is safe for children either; they are only guessing about the rules the Demons are following.
If the children escape with the castle, Fox will follow their scent, so the three adults can meet up with them again.
So Fibot takes off again and sails to the castle. They land in the castle courtyard; they have decided the boat should be close, so they can quickly escape in it again, if necessary. The thirteen children (this includes Vinia now) leave the boat and enter the castle, leaving Tata and the peeve in charge of the boat.
Piton and Data head off to the castle controls, so they can move it back to Xanth proper. Myst goes with them to help. The rest of them enter the central chamber, where they see the six adults, still frozen in a glassy display case.
Squid sends a mental message to Jess, telling her they have come to rescue them. Jess is dismayed; she had tried to warn them not to come.
Then the castle starts moving; it lifts off and flies through the air. Data calls out: they have got the castle on manual, not fading out and in, as is its usual mode of travelling. It is now flying over the water.
But then the castle jolts to a halt. Something has gone wrong.
The display case dissolves. The six frozen figures come to life. Dell swears, and says, “The trap has sprung.” Squid realises it was the movement of the castle which was the trigger.
Dawn says their captors had been waiting for the skeleton children to come, knowing that the rest of the children would come as well, bringing Fibot with them.
Jess says their captors are the Dwarf Demons, D NA and R NA – Demon Not Announced and Robot Not Announced. They had hidden in the Sometime region waiting for Caprice Castle and Fibot to arrive. Now they have both, along with the people to operate them.
[Yes, I get the pun. But it seems strange that a Demon would be called a robot.]
Magnus says the Demons are collectors. They want to set the castle and the boat up as exhibits and charge people to come and see them.
Now the Demons possess Dell and Nia: D NA possessing Dell and R NA possessing Nia. They tell the children to line up as supplementary exhibits.
But Squid stands up to them.
And then Demoness Fornax manifests in Larry’s body, transforming it into Laurelai’s form, and speaking in her voice. She tells the Demons she is arresting them and sentencing them to eternal degradation. The Dwarf Demons realise they have been caught in a counter-trap. Fornax gestures and the Dwarf Demons disappear, leaving their hosts behind.
Fornax announces that the mission is complete, and they can go home.
But then Laurelai’s body transforms back into Larry. He has been possessed by another Demon. The Demon says it is not over. He is the Demon Chaos.
Each time Fornax and Chaos speak, Larry’s body is transformed back and forth from male to female..
Fornax calls for backup. Demon Nemesis, Fornax’s husband, manifests in Magnus’s body. But Chaos continues to defy both of them.
Demon Xanth appears, in his form as the donkey-headed dragon. He accuses Chaos of raiding his demesnes and stealing his magic. He says he is putting a stop to it.
Chaos says Demon Xanth has it backwards. All of the other Demons have been raiding his demesnes, and now he, Chaos, will put a stop to it.
More Demons appear, until there are now nine Demons opposing Chaos. (Apart from Xanth and Fornax, these would be Demons whose realms are the planets of the Solar System. As the author noted in the Author’s Note of “Swell Foop”, Nemesis is a hypothetical body, possibly a brown dwarf, way out in the Solar System. Other Demons mentioned in the text are: Earth, Jupiter, Neptune and Mars.)
Nemesis asks Chaos on what basis he assumes the right to assert himself among them.
Chaos says he is the original Demon. It is they, the other Demons, who have impinged on his territory. But now he will abolish them all and return reality to its original pristine state.
The castle disappears, and they all appear to be in space, with many spinning galaxies. Chaos says this universe is the abomination that he will destroy.
Demon Earth says he has the power of Gravity, and holds things together.
Chaos points at a distant galaxy, which explodes, as Chaos abolishes Gravity. Demon Earth focuses, and the galaxy comes back together again. Chaos causes three more galaxies to explode, but Earth repairs them again.
Demon Jupiter says he has the power of the Strong Force, which holds fundamental atoms together.
Chaos looks at another galaxy, which dissipates into a fine mist. Jupiter concentrates, and the galaxy is repaired. Chaos causes six more galaxies to dissolve, but Jupiter repairs them again.
This process is repeated with the rest of the Demons. Chaos is able to overcome all their powers, and they have to concentrate to keep the universe intact. They are at an impasse.
Demon Xanth proposes a Demon Wager. The outcome would be decided by the actions of an ignorant mortal. The issue would the fate of the universe – whether it will continue as it is, or be abolished.
Demon Neptune proposes that there be three trials. Fornax proposes Squid as the mortal to take the trials, and the venue to be Caprice Castle.
And Squid realises that this is what she had known from the beginning of the story: the fate of the universe depends on her.
Demon Mars says she should have a weapon. Chaos says he must have a similar weapon.
They offer Squid, in turn, knives, clubs and guns. But instead she chooses as her weapon, the question, with insight to make it the right one for the occasion.
The scene dissolves, and Squid finds herself alone in Caprice Castle. The trials are about to begin.