Marian glanced around the small office, reflecting on the odd crew gathered there at San Savant's request. There was herself, Marian Holst, the centaur woman; then there was Adamant the Indestructible Man; Flow the animal form shapeshifter, currently being a large cat; and San Savant, part wizard and part business manager. Hardly the sort of people you would expect to see at a staff meeting. Exactly why they were there, Marian was not sure. Flow had said something about San Savant wanting her to go on a mission, which was definitely unusual. While Adamant and Flow were field agents for the Center For Gifted Research, Marian was one of the more-or-less permanent guests at the Center, and considered herself a non-combatant. She shifted her half-ton bulk uneasily on her pad, trying to work all four legs into comfortable positions.
San Savant finally finished shuffling his papers and raised his head to address the others. He blinked in mild surprise when he saw Flow, whose real name was Wanda Lafontaine, and she gave him a toothy yawn. Deciding it wasn't worth delaying the meeting over, he began.
"We have received a call for help from the mother of a 15 year old girl who lives not far from here." As usual, Marian found San Savant's mild, unidentifiable accent and precise speech charming. He spread a map of Ohio and pointed to a small town, north of Cincinnati. "Her daughter is Gifted, and is apparently suffering some sort of emotional trauma."
It had been nearly six months since a mysterious event had unleashed magic upon the mundane world. Shortly after realizing just how much trouble this Gifting and its aftermath would bring, Donald Criswold had bought the building they were in to house an organization dedicated to handling these problems. The work primarily involved helping people who had been physically or mentally affected by their Gift, but also included giving aid to local, state and Federal governments. Criswold had put San Savant in charge of the Center, and as part of his work here the wizard had formed a team of troubleshooters, mostly to help various law enforcement agencies deal with unruly Gifted. This team normally consisted of Adamant, Fleet, Flow, Sturdy and, lately, Wurm, who was Criswold's daughter by a previous marriage. Marian was not a part of this group, and had no interest in joining. The one time she had gone on a mission - actually a local emergency - she had suffered three broken ribs.
"It appears that the child has retreated into a sort of private world she has created in her room." Mr. San Savant paused to hand Adamant a hand-drawn map of the neighborhood, with the address and other pertinent information written on it. "I have decided to send Flow to talk with this girl, since this is a case where we need persuasion more than force. Adamant will be along in case something goes wrong."
He turned to Marian.
"They are located fairly near here, just fifty miles to the north. I would like you to go along, to help Flow talk with this young woman. I feel that as a mother, yourself, you will have a good chance of reaching the child. Please understand that this is strictly voluntary, and that I wouldn't even ask if I thought there were any serious chance of danger."
"All right," said Marian, nodding. "I'll go."
"The only complication I can see is that the family lives in a neighborhood primarily occupied by negroes."
Marian winced a bit, and filed this comment away, along with a number of other strange things San Savant had said or done. She knew that he was originally from another country, but at times it seemed as if he were from another century. Oddly, he had no problem working with the people of color he knew, which was fortunate. Sturdy, who was about as black as one could get, was an important member of his troubleshooting team. Flow shifted back to human form, and stood. The others followed suit.
"I guess we'll have to take my van, if I'm going," said Marian. "None of the other vehicles here will hold me."
"Can I drive?" asked Adamant, in his little-boy voice.
"No!" said Marian, Flow and San Savant in unison.
"Why not?" he returned, obviously taken aback by their reply.
"You drive like you think you're indestructible," said Flow, elbowing him in the ribs as she grinned.
"But I am indestructible!"
"That's not the point," said Flow. "You drive like everyone is indestructible."
"Besides," Marian added,
"there aren't any pedals and you don't know how to work the hand controls."
"She's in here," said Mrs. Warton. She opened the bedroom door, then stood back.
It was a jungle in there. Or rather, a forest.
"I can't see the end of it." Flow peered through the door, into the heavy growth.
"I've been too afraid to go in there," said Mrs. Warton, wringing her hands. "Kathy, Julia's younger sister, went in a couple of times, but never got far or found Julia."
"Well, let's get on with it," said Adamant, stepping through. He walked a short distance in, then stopped to look around. "Hey, this continues in the other direction, too," he announced, surprised. "The door just seems to be hanging in space."
Marian sighed; then, ducking a bit, she went through. She immediately noticed a change, and saw Adamant staring at her. She was smaller, barely six feet from hoof to crown instead of her normal eight plus, and her clothes were different. Formerly, she had been wearing a blouse and jacket, and a moderate amount of jewelry. Now she wore only a sort of long tunic, which hung down between her forelegs. Her equine coat had switched from black to a wild array of pastel colors. Marian wished she had a mirror; her face also felt different, and what she could see of her hair was colored similarly to her horse part.
Flow had stepped through right behind Marian, and had changed as well. She was much slimmer, with a narrow face and high cheekbones.
"You look like an elf," said Adamant, speaking to Flow. "And both of you have pointed ears."
While Marian felt her ears, Adamant turned to Mrs. Warton, who was watching them through the doorway. "Did Kathy change when she came in here?"
"No," Mrs. Warton replied. She seemed as surprised as the rest of them.
"It must only affect Gifted!" said Flow, even her voice touched by the overt magic of the place. She turned to glare at Adamant. "Why didn't you change?"
"Physically immutable, remember?" he countered, grinning.
Marian, frowning at a strange sensation between her forelegs, lifted her tunic, to find a set of male genitalia. She jerked the fabric back into place, blushing.
"She must have read Varley," said Adamant, his grin growing broader.
Marian noticed Flow surreptitiously checking her own anatomy, then looking relieved.
"Let's get this over with," growled Marian. She had seen shapeshifting before, but except for her initial transformation had never experienced it. She found the process disturbing. "There's a path over there. It must lead somewhere."
"I suppose that's as good a place to start as any," said Adamant, shrugging.
They set off into the woods.
It was a pleasant enough walk. The path ran through the cool, twilight forest, meandering only slightly. There were tall, ancient, gnarled trees, strange vines and odd flowering plants all around. None of the three from the Center could place the geology or botany; but then, none of them was an expert with either subject. However, even a casual examination told them that there was something definitely weird about this forest.
"She seems to have combined bits and pieces from every fairy tale, fantasy and science fiction story she has ever read to make this world," said Adamant, as he observed a giant Venus fly trap struggling with a rabbit. "There's no telling what we may run into."
"Thank you for those reassuring words," snapped Marian, still uneasy over her involuntary change. A movement on the ground caught her eye, and she abruptly shied away from a group of red army ants, which were carrying miniature rifles and wearing miniature helmets, the latter emblazoned with a miniature hammer and sickle.
"Looks like she watched cartoons, too," Adamant added, as he peered past the thoroughly spooked Marian.
Moments later they discovered that the woods might have more to offer than just interesting plants and animals. A swarm of small, glowing specks moved towards them, swirling in a complex pattern as it approached. At they bits came closer, the trio saw that these were no fireflies, but tiny, winged women, glowing with a soft yellow light. They were without clothes, but this didn't matter, since their bodies were as lacking in anatomical detail as those of manikins.
"Well, that's one form of fairy," said Adamant, frowning as the creatures swirled around them.
It seemed at first that they might only be curious; after a few moments of inspection they flew off. They soon returned, however, bearing flowers, which they delivered to Flow and Marian. Seeing that these were accepted peacefully, the fairies became bolder. They settled in the women's hair and on their clothing, and all along Marian's equine back. Adamant looked irritated at being left out.
They continued on along the path, their escort staying with them. The fairies made tiny, chittering conversation about the strangers' activities every time Marian, Wanda or Adamant did anything besides walk. It gave Marian the uncomfortable feeling she was being laughed at. Finally, the path opened out into a clearing.
In the center was the largest, most ancient tree in the forest. They didn't need to be told that, or even to guess; it was simply obvious. Somehow, part of the base had been persuaded to grow in the shape of a massive throne, covered with a padding of moss. There, on the throne, sat the Queen of the Fairies.
There was no doubt to that, either. She was very tall, thin almost to the point of gauntness, and her long, thick hair would have hung below her knees had she been standing. Her skin was as black as the gaps between stars, her eyes as bright and green as a sun-splashed leaf. Her bearing was quite regal. She regarded the trio with detachment, although it seemed that the glance she gave Adamant was a bit cold.
"Welcome, sisters," she said, finally. "I am Luanna. Why do you bring this mortal to my realm?"
"Adamant?" replied Flow, thinking quickly. "He's a friend. He's here to help us find a young mortal girl. You might know her. Her name is Julia Warton."
"That name means nothing to me," said the Queen, stirring uncomfortably, "and I know of no mortal girl in my domain."
"Are you sure?" asked Marian, taking her cue from Flow. "She's been missing for days, and her mother is very worried."
"The affairs of the mortal world are none of my concern," said the Queen, looking even more unsettled.
"Julia's sister is worried, too," said Adamant, for a change sounding sincere. "She has even come in here, looking for her, but hasn't found any trace. Her family and friends are beginning to give up hope."
"I..." The Queen shook her head, looking confused. "I don't want to go back. It's not real out there. This is real!"
"If this is real," asked Adamant, playing a hunch, "why are you so lonely?"
"Julia, your mother loves you," said Flow, quickly. "She wants to know that you are safe."
The Queen's appearance had changed subtly as they spoke. She was looking younger now, and less formidable. She shifted on her throne again, then abruptly stood.
"Let us go to this woman," she announced, after a moment of silence. "Perhaps I can persuade her that this child is not here."
She set off at a quick walk, forcing the three from the Center to hurry down the path after her. The fairies were left far behind by their pace.
The trip back was much shorter, taking only a few minutes. As soon as she saw the strange, open door standing in the small clearing at the other end of the path, Luanna stopped. Through the door they could see Mrs. Warton, although she had not yet noticed them.
"I don't want to leave," said the Queen, sounding and looking more and more like the teenage girl she actually was. "Out there it rains on holidays, and people steal your lunch money. In here, everything is always right."
"You can't stay in this dream world forever, honey," said Flow, gently. "Reality is other people, and putting up with them."
"But it's so peaceful here," Luanna countered, sounding almost petulant.
"Remember," said Marian, as another point occurred to her, "without Julia, Luanna couldn't exist."
She still looked doubtful, and Marian wondered what else they could say. Force was out of the question, not only on moral grounds, but because they had no idea how she would respond, or what powers she might have. They would have to continue with persuasion.
"You don't have to stay out there," said Adamant, with a gentleness which surprised Marian.
Luanna turned to look at him, a strange, desperate expression in her eyes.
"You have a place to come to when the world gets to be too much," Adamant elaborated. "Most people can only do this in their heads, but you have a special Gift. You can not only make your dreams physically real, you can invite friends to share them. And you can come back whenever you want."
Luanna smiled at him, a tear glinting in the corner of one eye. Then she turned, and walked toward the door. Her mother started at the appearance of this strange woman. Then, as Luanna stepped through the door and was transformed back into Julia, Mrs. Warton gave a cry of joy and rushed forward to smother her daughter with hugs and kisses.
"You did good, Ed," said Flow, patting Adamant on the back. They were all grinning as they watched the reunion.
"I guess that's a job well done," remarked Adamant, starting forward.
"Hold it," said Marian, catching him by the shoulder. "Let's wait for them to finish."
It didn't take long. In a few moments, they were beckoned out by Mrs. Warton to join the celebration.
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact the author for permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.