Shrinking Violet flew out of the castle unseen and quickly led the White Witch and Phantom Girl to a wooded area about a mile from the main castle. “Cham is going to look for his missing princess in a place called the Glade,” she explained. “It’s supposed to be the last known refuge for various magical creatures. He’s being led by a fancy would-be wizard named Grimoire. I am suspicious about the whole thing. I’m afraid Cham is being manipulated.”
“Now, Vi, we trust your instincts, but Cham is a master at role playing,” said Phantom Girl. “I’d say he’s equally aware of anything that could make the situation more perilous than it seems!”
Vi placed her hands on her hips and stalked forward. “Look, Tinya, I believe in Cham’s skills more than anyone. I mean, he rescued me when I was a prisoner of the Imskian radicals while the rest of you were swapping golden moments with Yera, who was posing as me! Still, he’s lovesick, and that makes a person vulnerable. I don’t want to see him get hurt!”
“Neither do I,” said Phantom Girl. “We’ll have to just stick to the plan you and he came up with while inside the castle. We stay out of sight and follow him!”
“Well, I have an idea that might make a difference,” said Vi. “Can you locate this Glade, Mysa? Surely, a place full of magic would show up on some level your powers would enable you to detect! If so, we could split up, and some of us could get there ahead of Cham. Maybe we can clear the place of obvious dangers before he gets there!”
The White Witch stood up. She had been sitting on the ground with her legs crossed in a posture of meditation. “I have been sensing such strong magic from a location not far from here,” said the pale beauty. “I assume it is the Glade!”
“OK, you and Vi can get there faster than Cham and his guide,” said Phantom Girl. “I’ll stay behind and follow them when they depart.”
Violet smiled and said, “That sounds good to me. I trust your skills, too, Tinya.”
Tinya Wazzo smiled and said, “Sorry. I guess I was being a bit condescending before.” She watched Salu Digby walk over to Mysa Nal with a confident stride, and she shook her head. I have to stop thinking of her as “Shy Vi,” she thought. She’s really come a long way.
Shrinking Violet shrank down to a small size and climbed atop the White Witch’s shoulder. “Let’s fly!” she said. “Stay under the shadows of the forest, and we should remain unseen.”
Phantom Girl watched them fly off, and then she turned intangible and flew off to observe and then follow Chameleon Boy and Grimoire when they emerged from the castle.
The White Witch and Shrinking Violet flew deeper and deeper into a thick forest. Violet noticed that, while she had felt the chill of winter on her bare legs when she was outside of the forest, the mini-dress-wearing Imskian had felt warm ever since the pair had penetrated the woods.
“The Glade seems shielded from cold weather,” noted Vi. “It’s apparently free of animal life, too. I have not seen or heard a bird or insect since we came inside. Yet I feel as if we are being watched!”
The White Witch made no reply, instead landing to spread her arms out and lift her head skyward. She contorted her body in a sudden, swift dance movement, and she laughed merrily.
Violet hovered in front of her friend’s face and noticed a weird expression of exultation on her delicate features. “Mysa? Are you hurt? What’s gotten into you?” she demanded.
Mysa laughed in reply and said, “Wrong? Nothing is wrong! I am happy, because for the first time in my stilted life, I am free! I can see, while before I was blind! My world has color now! I was never truly alive before we entered the Glade! Now I feel like I am truly one with nature!”
The White Witch whirled around in a circle, and Shrinking Violet frowned in concern. “She’s intoxicated! The magic energy of this place has altered her perceptions and her reactions! It’s like she had too many silver ales!” gasped the diminutive heroine. “Mysa, pull yourself together!” she said as she grew to normal size and shook the Witch by the shoulders.
“Look at the pretties! I want the tall one!” growled a creature who stepped out of the woods to confront them. It had a humanoid body, but its skin was a dirty yellow, and it moved with a slightly crouched posture. Two other equally evil and hungry-looking creatures followed it.
“Goblins! I guess that’s what you’d call those things!” cried Vi. She spun around and kicked the first one in the face. It fell backward, and the other two bounded forward to leap directly at the girl. She reduced her size and allowed them to crash to the ground while she hovered above them.
Increasing her size to normal, she brought her entire weight down on the nearest one’s head. It groaned and remained still, but the other two came closer, leering at her with malice and desire.
“She fights well for such a tender morsel!” cried one of them.
“Mysa, protect yourself!” Shrinking Violet cried out. “These things want to be one with you, all right, but not in some cosmic way!” She punched one of the creatures, only to be tackled from behind by another. She shrank out of its grasp and gasped as it lurched forward and almost swallowed her.
Growing larger, she kicked it back as the White Witch began to chant rapidly. One of the huge trees suddenly reached out to wrap long wooden tendrils around the goblins and pull them off the fighting Legionnaire.
Shrinking Violet rose to her feet and said, “Thanks, Mysa! You came out of that euphoric state just in time!”
The White Witch held one slender hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry! I cannot believe I could so lose myself!” she whispered.
“Don’t feel bad,” said Vi. “I may be wrong, but I think while we fought those things, the entire forest shifted! Nothing is where it was moments ago. This place changes itself as if by will. We’re completely lost! I thought we could get here and help clear Cham’s way, but we can’t be sure he’ll even come this way now!”
“Our rings have stopped working, too,” said the White Witch. “We can fly, but the communications feature is inactive!”
Meanwhile, Chameleon Boy and Grimoire had set out from Castle Artros, and the shape-shifting hero was gaining an admiration for his more flamboyant acquaintance. Grimoire’s zest for life and rather theatrical manners masked a more intellectual side. He could not conceal his passion for learning and exploring new possibilities. Cham admired that kind of zeal.
“This dimension you speak of as home fascinates me,” said Grimoire. “Your Legion must be remarkable in many ways. The wonders you consider to be products of science would appear as nothing less than miracles of magic to me!”
“Magic itself eludes me,” said Chameleon Boy. “I like things I can feel. I like to grasp the essence or the essential nature of anything or anyone I meet. It helps me to understand them. It allows me to appreciate their differences. I am as baffled by what I’d call the supernatural as any man! ‘Tis passing strange, indeed!”
Phantom Girl flew above them and passed through the trees as a silent wraith. She was concerned, because in spite of her earlier defense of Cham to Violet, she was also concerned with what she now saw of his behavior. He seemed to be drawn to the magic and the nuances of Nadirian culture, and she began to fear that her friend was perhaps spellbound in some manner. Cham’s always been quiet, but so decisive in his reasoning, she thought. That strength may work against him here if he is wrong about what is going on but refuses to accept that!
She stopped as she saw a huge mountain rise up before them. She was certain that the area had lacked any such formation seconds before. The landscape shifts like that of the Sorcerer’s World, Zerox! she thought.
Grimoire seemed confident and unconcerned as he led Chameleon Boy forward. “This place is so vibrant!” he said. “We were dolts not to come here before. I know those men who did enter the Glade never returned. However, they were merely soldiers without the creative gifts we possess. We can appreciate the magic of the place without being fearful of it!”
“There’s a cavern of sorts within the mountain,” said Chameleon Boy. “That cave is huge, but I feel as if I was drawn to it!”
Grimoire stopped and gazed at the smaller man. “Aye? I feel it as well! Some will-o’-the-wisp urge leads me ever deeper into yon cavern!” he said in an intense voice.
Chameleon Boy shifted forms, and as an ursine creature he led the wizard forward. “Stay behind me. My new form can protect me more than your thin armor!”
Grimoire laughed and said, “You are indeed a wonderful companion! Your ability to alter your form, or polymorph, thusly makes you capable of many astonishing deeds!”
The Legionnaire hesitated and said, “We’re not alone!” He shoved Grimoire aside and changed into the form of a tiny bird as flames burst out and narrowly missed the odd pair.
“By the gods! Tis a giant worm!” gasped Grimoire as he struggled to dodge the huge creature that loomed up before them as jets of flame illuminated the cavern.
“A dragon!” said Cham. “That’s what Dirk and Thom would call it if this was one of their holo games!”
The monster was scaly and reptilian. The long neck and serpentine form loomed over Chameleon Boy as he changed forms again and tried to shield Grimoire from the blasts of flame that came from the creature’s mouth. It roared and moved forward to reveal bat-like wings.
Grimoire yelled certain arcane words, and a brilliant burst of light exploded to briefly blind the creature. Still, it moved forward, guided by some sense beyond the purely visual. It clawed out at them, and Cham’s newly rocky hide deflected the claws, but he knew such protection could do little to subdue the monster.
“That burst of light was about the best I can do!” said Grimoire.
“I hope I can do a bit better!” said Chameleon Boy, changing into an amorphous blob that coated the dragon’s head until it could neither open its jaws nor see, smell, or hear. It was a desperate act, but all it could do was buy them some time.
Phantom Girl swooped down, and Grimoire stared at her in wonder. “By the gods!” he cried. “A wraith! As lovely a specter as ever man could desire!”
“Thanks! You’re kind of cute yourself!” joked Tinya as she hovered in front of the dragon, then suddenly leaped inside its body in her intangible form. She passed through the creature’s chest and found herself inside the huge creature’s body. She could stand upright due to the size of the monster, but she knew that she could not survive in solid form within such a place for long.
Concentrating, she used the skills she had developed in her long career as one of the Legion’s earliest recruits. She solidified only one hand and closed it around the monster’s heart. She felt the beast shudder, and then she flew out in haste.
The dragon had collapsed, and Grimoire and Chameleon Boy watched admiringly.
“The fair spirit vanquished the creature!” announced Grimoire approvingly.
Tinya curtseyed in recognition of his praise and said, “I’m a friend of Cham’s. I felt like I had to reveal myself!”
Chameleon Boy smiled ruefully. “Some knight errant I proved to be. Thanks, Tinya! No need for me to get wrapped up in false male pride, even on an ancient world like this!”
“It won’t be stunned for long,” said Phantom Girl. “What exactly are you looking for? I did a quick pass through the cave and saw nothing but treasure. Princess Elwinda is not within that cave!”
“I think I should tell you something I realized back at court,” said Cham. “Come closer.” He whispered to her in hushed but hurried tones, and her eyes widened in surprise.