Another Way first pages

Part Six: The Wither

Chapter Forty One: Midnight Train

It was dark by the time Jeanette boarded the train. She had chosen the late departure so that she could sleep during the boring part of the trip, and would be awake when things were interesting.

She had taken a roomette rather than a smaller compartment. It had two bunks but only the bottom one was made up. There was a tiny bathroom, and an even tinier closet in which she stowed her package of weapons. A fold-down table beside the window had a swivel-mounted chair.

She sat on the bunk, feeling the gentle motion, hearing but not listening to the sound of wheels on track. She was wide awake. She turned out the light, went to the chair, and watched the lights of the city go slowly by. There was a moon, which gave some form to houses, trees, and occasional commercial buildings. There were fewer lights after a while, then the even darker suburbs. The train picked up speed when they left the city. The tracks ran parallel to a highway for a while, but the cars, their headlights glaring, were going faster than the train.

This was the first time she had been on a train since the summer she was nine. Her parents had taken her to visit her grandparents in North Dakota. The train part of the trip had been exciting, the movement and the sounds and watching the countryside change as they went from one state to another. The memories had stayed with her.

The visit with her grandparents had been less enjoyable. She was the only child there, she wasn’t allowed to go out by herself, and there wasn’t much to do besides sit and listen to the grownups talk. Her grandparents had few books that she could read and, what utterly surprised her, they had no paper on which to draw or write.

But the train ride had been wonderful. She hadn’t minded being under her parents’ constant supervision if she had a window to look out of and, as long as she was quiet, they left her alone.

The movement and the sounds were as she remembered them. The night, despite the moonlight, was too dark for her to see much of the countryside. One tiny town, hardly more than two crossroads, had its three street lights on, and she liked what she saw of it, but that was all there was. She decided to go to the club car.

The car behind her sleeper car had an upper level, then there was the empty diner, then two coaches, which were nearly dark, the observation car, two more coaches, and at last the club car, which also had an upper dome. There were two men at one of the large booths on one side, and three women at another on the other side. She didn’t want to sit with them, but at least there were people. She had become used to having company, which she had never sought out before. Steve had always been enough.

She went past the booths and the curving stairs into the narrow passage beside the food counter. The not quite elderly man behind it sold her a split of wine for seven fifty. With the tiny bottle she got a glass and a napkin. “How late will you be open?” she asked.

“The car will be open all night, but I shut down the bar at midnight, local time.”

She took her drink up to the dome, but there was nobody there. She went back down and sat at one of the small booths between the larger ones. There was nobody in the opposite booth. She poured her wine.

Being on a train affects all your senses. It helped her feel removed from recent events, almost like another form of reality, where grief and anger and fear didn’t exist. Or at least didn’t matter. When she was safely home, with no one to answer to or for, then she could deal with all those things, but not now.

Home. She saw her house as if it were just outside the window, the rooms, the yard, the street, right there in front of her. But it was all so far away. The time she had personally experienced had not been all that much, despite the months which had passed here. But she was not the same person any more. She wondered if home would actually feel like home when she got back.

She listened to the quiet talk on either side of her. The two men, across the way toward the back, were discussing business of some sort. They had been there for some time. One of the women in the booth on her side of the car was complaining about some member of her family. The two women with her occasionally uttered sounds of sympathy.

The men ran out of conversation after a while. Then one of them said something about the recent bad weather. Jeanette couldn’t make out much, but apparently it had been extreme all over the country. A lot of their comments were about the incompetence of the weather bureau, which had predicted none of it. One of the men said something about inconvenience, and the other said something that sounded like it was about injuries, but if he mentioned any deaths she didn’t hear it. 

The freaky weather had returned to normal after the flood which had carried away her parents. That had been her enemy’s purpose after all. Her enemy probably knew that she was in her own world. Did it know that she was on this train? Or just here in general? Maybe now that she was going home, it would think that she had given up. Well, let it think that.

She leaned back and looked out the window beside her. The countryside, dimly lit by the moon, was darker than the sky. All she could see were irregular shapes going by. Sometimes the moonlight cast shadows, which hinted at trees or houses, but they were quickly gone.

She finished her wine. The bartender was cleaning up and asked if she wanted another. She didn’t. He spoke to the two men. They wanted another round. The women had finished and went out past the bar toward the back of the train.

At last she decided that she could sleep. She put an extra dollar on the table and left.

There were a few reading lights in the coach, but most of the people were trying to sleep. There were the sounds of heavy breathing, a few snores, occasionally the rustle of a page turning, and the subtle noises of people trying to get comfortable in the reclining seats. Jeanette was glad that she had chosen to pay for a roomette.

She went through the accordion connector between the cars into the vestibule of the next coach. She tried to not disturb people as she walked past them. It was very quiet. There was no rustling, no snoring.

She went through the door at the other end and paused on the jointed floor between the cars. It was noisy here, but the sound and the motion were reassuring, almost soothing. It was familiar, in a strange sort of way, even though her last experience of it had been — what was it now — more than fourteen years ago. She had had another birthday since she had been gone. But this was her world after all, and despite everything, it felt good to be back.

She went into the dome coach, past the luggage compartments and the rest rooms to the first section of seats. It was awfully quiet. The people around her were sleeping very soundly. Out of curiosity she went up to the dome. There were only a few people there. She went back down, then past the three little lounges in the middle of the car. They were empty. The people in the last four rows of seats were as quiet as those in the first three had been.

She was half way along the next coach before she realized that there was no sound here at all. She looked at the people behind her. They were completely motionless. Even those with reading lights were frozen in place.

What had she been saying to herself, about being back home at last?

The woman in the aisle seat on her left appeared to be asleep, her chair pushed back as far as it would go, a blanket draped across her legs. Her mouth was open, but she was not breathing. The woman next to her had her face turned away. The man on the right wasn’t breathing either, nor was the child sitting next to him.

A chill touched her between her shoulders. These people weren’t dead, it wasn’t that simple. She hurried to the next lit seat, where a man was reading a paperback. She leaned toward him and said softly, “Excuse me.”

He did not respond. His eyes did not flicker. He was not breathing. She waved her hand between his face and his book. He did nothing. He could have been a mannequin. She reached out to touch his arm, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She looked at all the motionless people behind her, went to the next connector, but stopped before entering the vestibule ahead of her.

The noise of the wheels against the rails seemed somehow distant, as if it were coming from a block away. The swaying and bouncing of the train was slow and gentle, a motion that would have been soporific if it hadn’t been frightening. She went into the vestibule and looked through the window in the outside door. She could see nothing at all. She felt for her enemy, but there was no sign of it, whatever it was.

The next coach was so silent that it made her hair stand up. And there was no light either, though she could see everything clearly. She hurried through the car and stopped in the connector. There was no sound. There was no motion. Time had stopped. 

Or her perception of it had. She could move, and breathe, and think…. What might her reaction have been, if this had been her first experience with the greater reality? The thought almost made her laugh. She was very changed indeed.

The tables in the empty dining car had not been set, only fresh cloths had been put on. Her ticket included meals. She wondered if it mattered.

She sat down at one of the round tables. Time had stopped here, but her knees brushed the table cloth aside as it normally would. Whatever was causing the time effect, she was outside it. She tried again to feel her enemy, but she couldn’t. She tried to perceive the fabric of reality, but she couldn’t. That didn’t make sense.

She shivered again. If it wasn’t her enemy who was doing this, then who was? It wasn’t her guide, who had never done anything more than give her hints and suggestions and clues. If you didn’t count opening portals from one world to another. But she had been doing that herself, her guide had just nudged her, showing her the way.

Whatever was doing this, she wasn’t yet where she was supposed to be. She looked out the window beside her. There was nothing. It was not dark, there was just nothing there.

She went through the first sleeper to the next connector. There was no more train beyond that. Her car and all the train forward were gone.

This car’s part of the connector floor butted up against a small platform that was not a part of the train. It was about six feet on a side. It was hard to tell exactly. At first she thought it was white, but really it was no color at all. At first she thought that the void in which the platform and the train were suspended was black. But really, it was no color at all.

She stood for a long moment without thinking. A two-foot wide walkway extended beyond the little platform into an infinite distance. It had no rails, and no supports as far as she could see. 

She wanted to go home. She really wanted to go home. 

She turned back to the pneumatic door which had opened so easily when she had come out. She reached out to touch the plate switch and paused. How had it been able to work, if time had stopped? She touched it. The door slid open, all but silently. The hall elled to the left the way it was supposed to. There were only roomettes on this car, unlike hers which had a number of smaller compartments as well. 

She did not go through the open door. She didn’t want to commit herself to that. If she went back, if time returned, would she lose her only chance to do what was being asked of her? Or would she be stuck on a timeless train forever?

She turned away from the door. It hissed shut behind her. The platform in front of her was unchanged. The walkway leading away from it was unchanged. The black but colorless void was unchanged. She shivered.

It was always her choice, to stay or go, to drop the rock or not. And since it was her choice, she was sure that this was not her enemy’s doing. And if it was not her guide, then it had to be some power behind it. And whatever that was, it had gone to an awful lot of effort to let her know that she was needed.

She took a step onto the little platform. It held firm. She crossed it to the walkway, narrow and without rails. She took a breath — even here she had to breathe — and started walking. After a few minutes she turned to look behind her.



Chapter Forty Two: The Center of All Things

The walkway was a thread back to the train, to her world infinitely far away. Time flowed normally there. She had been taken out of her world as well as out of time, leaving it in a direction which had no meaning in mundane physics.

She looked down at herself, but there was nothing to see. She was still on the train, in the connector between cars, in mid-stride. If there were anybody there, they would see her going from one car to the other without interruption. However long her time here might seem, the only time that would pass there would be from one step to the next. She was Schrödinger’s passenger, her state determined by an outside observer.

The walkway extended before her into an infinite distance. At its other end was the convergence of all worlds….

She thought about that for a minute, or what seemed like it. 

She couldn’t get anywhere by perceiving the ultimate reality at this level of abstraction. She needed a metaphor. If she thought about her situation in a certain way, she was standing on a narrow, colorless walkway that wasn’t white, extending from her train into the weave of reality in a colorless void that wasn’t black … that wasn’t working.

Her boots were black, not colorless. She could see herself again. Her belt was black. Her ring glowed blackly, a source of energy or a channel or a link. She felt the dagger hanging between her breasts but she didn’t take it out. It, too, was more than real. If she had brought the Tash Griaf with her, it would be the same.

She drew nearer to the cloud of reality until it filled nearly half the void around her. If she looked at it in a certain way, it was composed of countless walkways in a multi-dimensional matrix, each of them a connection between multiple worlds. Like M. C. Escher’s famous woodcut of infinite stairs. Where the walkways intersected, at whatever angle they did, there were platforms, floors, standing places, locations rather than ways. They could be interpreted that way, so that was what she saw. 

When she went from world to world, she went from platform to platform, across the warp and weft of reality. Her own world was not outside this weave, that was just a matter of perspective. Somewhere in there were each of the worlds she had visited, and the world to which she had now been summoned. She didn’t know where they were. She was outside, not inside, and her peculiar point of view prevented recognition.

There was something out here with her, though she perceived nothing other than the thread from which she seemed to dangle above the fabric of reality. But it was there, and it was frightening. Her presence here was due to whatever it was that was behind her guide. But the intrusion of which she was now aware was her enemy.

It came to her, as if on wings, from a different direction, in a place where there was no direction in the first place. She didn’t have time to think, she just ducked. The evil, which she had felt flickering in the interstices between the worlds, missed her, but it did not miss her thread. Her connection to her own world was severed, and she fell, translated from a multi-dimensional void adjacent to the weave of reality, to the surface of an infinite plane covered with dust, below a black sea of space, in which hung just one green star. Its light cast her shadow on the dust. The evil wings which had precipitated her here had gone. They could come back, and she would have to be somewhere else when they did.

What she perceived was just her interpretation. She thought, for an instant, about seeing the white space plane and the blackest sea as something else, using a different metaphor, but the idea terrified her. That way madness lay. And in her madness, her enemy would have its victory. The problem with this particular metaphor, was that there was no way to get from one world to another. That was what her enemy had intended.

She started walking, but after a few steps she paused and looked back. There was the disturbed place where she had first appeared, and her footprints to where she was now, and nothing else. She went on. She didn’t know if she were going in the right direction. Maybe it didn’t matter.

She came across another set of footprints going in approximately the same direction. Whoever had made them had been running. They were boot-prints, very much like hers, but somewhat larger. They ran in a more or less straight line, the faint markings lost in the near distance in both directions. Whoever had made them had to have been someone like her. She didn’t think that some random person could have been plucked out of some mundane reality and just dropped here by chance, in this very place, in this very particular metaphor. 

There was no reason for her to not follow this line of prints.

She came to where they suddenly changed direction for a few steps, then just as suddenly changed back again, as though the runner had tried to avoid hitting something coming toward her. Or whatever it was that was chasing her.

She stopped, suddenly frightened. Her predecessor had been fleeing something which had almost caught up with her, something, perhaps, like the dark wings which had separated her from the thread to her world. She felt a chill, sharp and intense. 

She went on. The dust became subtly mounded until she was walking across long, low dunes. The running footprints had become uncertain in their direction, as if harassed and tired out. Occasionally, on one side or the other, the dust was disturbed, as if blown aside by the wind of wings. She felt another chill, worse than the first.

She came to a place where the maker of the footprints had run more easily. She knelt beside the marks. It was strange dust that could hold so clear yet light a print. But these footprints had dust in them, the dust of days and years long dead. How long ago had this happened, in any sense in which time made sense?

The footprints staggered up the long, gentle slope of a dust dune. At the top, a mark like a knife cut across the last footprint, and there were no more. Her predecessor had not escaped.

The woman in the cave of flames had not escaped. The woman from whose bones Jeanette had recovered the boots had not escaped. There was no guarantee that she would escape either.

She looked around. There was nothing except the white space plane, herself, the low mounds of dust, and this line of footprints, sharply cut off. There was no body, no desiccated mummy, no skeleton. Whoever her predecessor had been, she had been killed here, but she had died at home.

The blackest sea above her was equally empty, except for that one lost green sun. There was a point of some kind beside it.

There was, in one direction from where she stood, a change in the nature of the white plane. It descended, ever so slowly, until it merged with the sea of space. She went that way.

The surface on which she walked changed. The dust became less firm as it became coarser, until she was leaving only vague depressions in fine white sand. Like a beach. And so it was.

There were no waves on the sea. The sand became coarser and more widely distributed. She could see down into it a way. Farther on she could see farther through it, though it still supported her weight. Farther on she began to sink in, and there she stopped.

She heard something and turned, expecting to see black wings wielding a sword as sharp as sound, ready to cut her own footprints short. It wasn’t that. It was delicately colored like mother of pearl, and coiled like a snail but in more than three dimensions. It was alive, moving along the crest of the nearest dune, some distance away yet, but coming more or less in her direction. 

She could not tell how big it was, beach-ball-sized, or elephant-sized. It was singing, like the most delicate crystal wind chimes. She knew, that as long as she could hear it, she was safe. 

This was not an intelligence like her guide or her enemy, but it was not mindless either. It was not a part of the conflict between Jeanette and her enemy. It could not be affected by her enemy, and that enraged her enemy. Whatever damage the evil and the power behind it might cause in the mundane worlds, or even in the fabric which wove them together, it could not touch this, this essence of something, in any way.

It went past her, so close that she felt as though she could almost touch it, yet she still could not tell how big it was, or how small. Or maybe it was so far away. The sand where it passed was not disturbed.

The straight green rays of the lost green sun cast her shadow behind her on the beach and across the blackest sea. Something by the sun twinkled, or so she thought.

This whole beach business was just a metaphor. She was lost and she had to get back to the weave of reality. There was somewhere she had to be, and her enemy had successfully distracted her from it.

She became aware that she could no longer hear the crystal singing. But now she heard something else. It did not sound like the flapping of wings, but that was what it was. It was not her enemy, but something sent by it. Her enemy would not condescend to approach her itself. She didn’t try to look for it, she just ran toward the blackest sea until the sand thinned, and she fell through it, and turned somehow in another direction.

She was very far away from the matrix of worlds and connections that was the weave of reality. There was no thread for her to follow to reach it, or to reach anywhere else. Behind her, like a thin cloud, was that which was supposed to be her destination, but there was no way to get to it.

How much control did she have over the metaphor? Could she adjust her perception so that she could get closer to her objective? She tried to open her awareness, to get some hint or clue from whatever it was that was her guide, but there was no response. She looked at the distant matrix, getting ever more remote, and tried to imagine herself drawing nearer. It didn’t work. Imagining herself swimming back to the beach she had just left didn’t work either. Her guide was unresponsive. The power which had brought her here was unknown. Then where could she turn for help?

She didn’t know how to change metaphors. She didn’t know how to move in this one. She had traveled from world to world on her own power, but she didn’t know how she did it. There was no one to call on. Aside from herself, there was only her enemy. She had to do this alone.

She turned inward, into a house of mirrors of memories, all transparent, and not arranged in any order. She did not know what she was looking for. She had never thought of herself as strong, or brave, or competent, or self-reliant, and yet she had discovered that she was all those things. She could remember no hint or premonition of them. She had never thought of herself as unhappy, but she knew that she had been subtly but constantly frustrated, smothered by her parents’ over-protectiveness. And yet she had some quality, some characteristic which had made her guide, or the power behind it, choose her to be the hero.

One of the mirror memories came to her. When she was very small, she used to pretend that she was something like a cross between a pony and a butterfly, golden with huge rainbow wings. She could fly away from the confines of her parents’ need and fear. It wasn’t that she actually went anywhere, she just went away.

The desperate childhood fantasy of escape was not what had singled her out. Too many children had similar fantasies, and the need to escape from families and situations that were far worse than hers. But something tingled at the back of her head as she pursued the memory of that fantasy. There was something there, like a tiny candle in the vast dark. It marked her as different. It made her different. It was a sign of the difference. A consequence. Whatever. Did it matter? Could it help?

She didn’t have eyes, so they couldn’t have been closed, but it was as if she had opened them. A warp of space, around the edge of which was a rainbow glimmer of distant stars. A sudden thrust of movement outside the star-lines and space-lanes. A reformulating of concepts of body and mind and self. Without any transition, she was on a narrow walkway at the edge of the Escher-like matrix of places and connections.

It was not the only walkway extending into infinity. The poly-dimensionality of the lines and surfaces that made up the weave of location and relationship was so complex that she could not recognize or remember any part of it. All she knew was that where she was supposed to be was somewhere ahead of her. In there.

She went toward it, as colorless herself as the walkways and platforms, except for the blackness of her boots, belt, and ring. She had thought that she was right at the edge of the complex, but that was not so. The lattice filled up more and more of the void, but still she did not come to an intersection, a meeting, or a platform. She did not actually enter it. The non-material construct stretched out in an infinite number of directions, as far as the white plane had done. 

She had a vague memory that she had experienced something like this before. She didn’t want to think about it, but was compelled to try to remember whatever it had been. Little flickers of something invisible crossed her mind, and that didn’t help. The inside of the back of her head felt strange, so she stopped thinking. There was an odd sensation across the front of her shoulders, and along the back of her neck. Her arms and legs didn’t belong to her any more, they just hung off her body. The compulsion to remember became stronger until it was impossible to think of anything else.

She was looking at the palms of her hands, but she didn’t know why. There was something glowing blackly on the first finger of her left hand. She turned her hand over, and saw the bezel of the ring. The symbol within it was profoundly meaningful. She couldn’t quite grasp it, but it was good, she knew that. It was her link to something far greater than she.

The pressure in the back of her head eased up somewhat, and she began walking again. She paid no attention to the structure around her, she just kept focused on the walkway under her feet. She came to a platform from which two other walkways extended. She chose one and went on. She did not count the number of platforms she came to. They were merely representations of something else, and their number was meaningless. In a way, the whole lattice was platforms, and in another way, it was all walkways, and in yet another way it was neither.

She didn’t make a conscious choice when she came to a place where there were different ways to go, she just went. Sometimes, instead of straight or left or right, there was up or down or some other angle. Whichever way she went, she was always upright.

There was no time here. It didn’t matter how long it seemed to take her to get to where things began to be different, because it didn’t take any time at all. Once she got there, it felt as though she had just started out.

The matrix was less dense here, but she had not gone all the way to the other side. She had come to the center. There was no telling how big the center was, other than that it was infinitesimal compared to the greater structure. No walkways crossed it. Only one platform, very small, hung in the middle of it. And the way to get to it was not where she was.

It was over there. She could not see a way to it. When she traced her walkway back to some other intersection or platform that might lead her to it, the ways always seemed to go off somewhere else. When she followed the walkway from the central platform back into the maze, she could see no connection between it and the platform she was on. And while there was no time here, retracing her steps to some other point from which she could find a way would be tedious beyond endurance. And there would be no guarantee of success.

There was a platform that was somewhat below her, as it were, with a walkway that led to another platform, which was not that far from an intersection, which…. 

Standing on a surface was just an illusion. She had stood on surfaces at right angles — and worse — to the one on which she had walked away from the train. What would happen — the thought frightened her somewhat — if she stepped off the platform on which she was now standing, and tried to jump, or fall, or whatever to that platform that seemed to be below her? Well, if she fell all the way through the maze and wound up on that mystic beach again, she would just have to come back for another try.

She stepped off, aimed herself at her target, and landed on it with no more force than as if she had just taken a step. The weird feeling of compulsively trying to remember something that had never happened increased until it became excruciatingly uncomfortable. The intensity of it made her crouch down, her arms across her chest, her hands clutching her shoulders, as if that could somehow relieve the bizarre sensation in them. At the same time there was a feeling of exhilaration, not strong at first but growing. She was not confined to the rules of this place.

She focused on that, and succeeded in pushing the compulsive memory search into the back of her mind. She stood, looked around at the places and connections, found another platform nearer to where she wanted to be — and went to it without using any walkways. It took her only a few more transitions, an indeterminate number but not large, to get to where she could actually walk to the final platform.

It was in the center of everything. All around her was the weave of reality as seen from the inside. Beyond that, if such a term could be used for something that was essentially infinite, was the white dust, equally infinite. Or maybe it was a larger infinity, aleph one instead of aleph null. Or something. Beyond that was the ultimate void. If there was anything beyond that, she had not yet experienced it. She hoped that she never would.

The walkway to the center was narrower than the others had been, but she had no fear of falling. She didn’t really need walkways any more. Given a little practice, she could get to any platform she could see, under her own power alone. What those platforms represented was another question. Somewhere out there were the worlds which she had visited, but she could not see them, and she probably wouldn’t recognize them from here.

This last platform was smaller than any of the others, no more than four feet on a side, if it had been physical. It was the center of everything, the focus, the central knot. Though there seemed to be only one walkway leading away from it, the one by which she had come, it was connected to everything else.

The sense of weirdness increased. She couldn’t ignore it but she didn’t have to pay attention to it. She knew that this was the center, and she focused on that knowledge. The closer she looked at it, the greater the weirdness became. It was, in some ways, similar to the false sense of memory, of knowing something of which she had had no experience.

It was this knowing that she wanted to understand. She concentrated on the feeling to the exclusion of everything else. It seemed as though she had it almost within her grasp. The sensation of weirdness increased until she seemed to turn inside out. There was only herself and nothing more. Except another presence.

She did not pursue it. She did not know whether this other presence was her guide or something behind it, but now was not the time to find out. Her guide was a sentience, a personality, not an automaton. And behind her guide was another sentience, vaster, stronger, directing not guarding. And behind the guardian was — she couldn’t see. 

The sense of weirdness became increasingly intense, and so achingly uncomfortable that she finished the movement which had turned her inside out and came back all the way around to herself on the central platform.

The complex multi-dimensional maze of places and relationships around her was as it had always been, but her perception and understanding of it had changed. If she were summoned into the fabric of reality again, she would not need to walk the lines to go from place to place. She would just go.

The platform on which she symbolically stood was tiny compared to the others, as was the world which it represented. Now that she was here, she knew that she didn’t have to travel to that world. She was already there.



Chapter Forty Three: The Heart of Creation

It was a fairytale forest, the trees both huge and delicate, each subtly different in color and shape. A soft breeze gently shook the leaves, making the slanting gleams of sunlight dance along the leaf mold, the moss, and the scattered undergrowth which was varied and colorful. The air was neither too warm nor too cool, and so clear that it almost sparkled. She was enchanted. All she wanted to do was walk and wander.

It took her a moment to remember that she had a purpose here, and that this was not exactly where she needed to be. It was not her enemy who had deflected her. She could have manifested in this world anywhere she chose. The lack of a specific call or knowledge had brought her to only the general rather than the particular place. She would get no guidance here, other than her native intelligence and past experience.

She looked around at the beautiful, but somehow disappointing forest. Which way should she go? The ground sloped gently down to the right. 

She went that way. It should have been superbly pleasant to walk here. It should have been peaceful. Instead, despite her first impression, it felt like just a forest. 

She could sense no evil at work, but it was too quiet. There were no sounds aside from a very faint background of leaf-flutter. In a forest undisturbed by human activity, there should have been birds, animals large and small, and insects, all going about their business. It was possible for a forest to exist without animal life of any kind, but this was not that kind of forest. Maybe the animals had just gone away somewhere. Or maybe they had died. 

With that thought, two subtle things became apparent. There was a slightly off smell, and the foliage was just a bit limp. The forest had begun to die, and if evil was not here now, it had been.

She followed the slight downward trend until she came to where it began to rise again, and turned to go along the bottom of the shallow valley. After a while there were boulders, mossy and half embedded in the ground on either slope. Some were as small as a dining room table, others were nearly the size of a small house, all were idealized and interestingly shaped.

She heard something ahead, a soft, almost gentle weeping. It took her a moment to realize that it wasn’t human. She moved as quietly as she could toward a large tree, the roots of which had partially enveloped a strangely shaped boulder. On the other side, in a small hollow, was a furry creature, rather bigger than a house-cat. 

It was all body. Its fur was a nondescript brown and rather coarse. Where its legs and feet should have been there were only toes, long and hairless and nearly black, with claws over an inch long that could be used for hunting or climbing or digging. It had no tail, and only eyes at the front end, closed now, and running with tears. She could not see its mouth. Its behavior, an expression of tragic grief, was inappropriate for an animal, and might be a ruse to entice prey. 

She prepared herself for the possibility of a fierce fight and consequent injury. Then she came the rest of the way around the tree and knelt down in front of the creature. It did not respond. Its weeping occupied it completely. “May I help you?” she asked softly.

The creature sort of hiccuped, raised its front end toward her, opened its eyes blearily, and looked at her. There was a mouth, shaped like that of a shark, but its many teeth were more like those of an insectivore. It blinked at her.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asked, not caring whether it understood her or not. It was the tone that mattered.

“I’m lost.” Its voice was half way between a purr and a murmur.

She was not seeing the animal as it really was. The forest around her was only a representation. Her own body was just an image of a different reality. But if appearances let her deal with what was happening, then that was fine. “Maybe I can help you find your way home.”

“Would you, please?”

“I can try. But I don’t know where you live.”

“I live in the Wither.”

“Is that somewhere in the forest?”

“No. Not really.”

“Do you know where we are now?”

“In the Surrounding Forest.”

“Do you remember how you got here?”

“I was trying to find Garuna. We were playing with the Jewel, and he took it.”

It seemed so trivial, but this was why she was here. The creature was weeping again. Its feelings of betrayal and loss were compounded by guilt and fear.

She sat cross-legged on the leaf mould. She almost reached out to touch the creature, but decided not to. It could be a lot more wild and vicious than it now appeared. It had shown no fear of her, nor any surprise when she had spoken to it, and she didn’t know what that meant. She would have to be especially careful.

She looked around at the forest. The signs of death were subtle but could not be mistaken. The creature, too, did not look well. This world was at the center of meta-reality. If it died…. She didn’t need to finish the thought. “I think we need to get your jewel back.”

“Oh, yes, yes, or everything will go away.”

“But I don’t think this is a good place to start looking.”


“You don’t know where we are?”


“And I certainly don’t.”

It looked up at her again, surprised.

“I’ve never been here before. I came because I felt your need.”

It stared at her with — how could she tell, it had no face — just a touch of apprehension.

“Powers greater than I brought me here,” she said, “so that I could help you find your jewel. Then, when everything is back the way it should be, I’ll go away again.”

“Did Gedeon send you?”

“I don’t know. Who is Gedeon?”

“He is our protector. The Wither is his place of rest. He didn’t send you?”

“I have never met the power that sends me places. I just go and do what I have to do. Which is usually to solve a problem and set things right again.”


“Really. I am here to find your jewel —”

“It’s not my Jewel. It belongs to the Pool.”

“Okay, to find the pool’s jewel, and to put it back where it belongs. But I’ll never find it if we’re lost. I think we should go back to the pool and start from there. Okay?”

“Okay. But I don’t know how to get there.”

“Well, to be honest, I don’t either. But maybe I can find the way.” She stood and looked around. She had no idea which way to go. “That’s where you live isn’t it? By the pool? When you came here, to where we are now, were you going uphill or down?”

“I was going all over.”

“Okay. Did it take you a long time to get here?”

“No, not very long.”

“An hour? A day?”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s all right.”

The creature had probably come to the hollow from the side opposite the tree, so probably she should go that way. She started walking, expecting the creature to follow, but almost at once it called after her, “Please, wait for me.”

She turned to see it scurrying after her, as best it could for having no legs to speak of. It’s scrambling toes churned up the leaf-mold, but left no marks as the leaves slowly returned to their former positions. It came to her and looked up. “You go so fast.”

“Shall I carry you?”

It shuffled a bit, then it said, “Okay.”

She reached down, put her hands around it as she would a cat or a small dog, and picked it up. It wasn’t all that heavy. Its coarse fur was not unpleasant to touch, rather like a reindeer skin she had once felt. “Let’s get you comfortable.” She helped it get into position so that it was lying along her left forearm, with her hand just under where its chin would have been if it had had one. “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” It blinked at her.

“Good. Now if you get any ideas which way we should go, tell me, okay?”


“Otherwise I’ll just have to guess.”


It was easy walking. The ground was firm but not hard. The low vegetation was spaced so that she never had to go far out of her way.

The creature was a bit tense, its front toes wrapped around her wrist so that she could feel the tips of its claws. It had probably never been carried before. After a while it relaxed, and then, slowly, bit by bit, it snuggled up against her.

She looked down at it. It tilted its front end back and looked up at her. If she wanted to take it home with her, it would gladly go. But the creature needed to go to its own home, not hers. 

And if she kept on the way she was going, she would never get there. This wasn’t a world like any other she had visited. It probably wasn’t a world at all, in the sense of being a planet orbiting a star in a galaxy among billions of others. This was a different kind of place altogether, and it followed different rules.

The creature lowered its front end and snuggled closer. She touched it gently with her other hand.

This place was no more a forest than it was a platform. What it really was didn’t matter. What did matter was, that if she treated it like just a world, she would never find this creature’s home. “Tell me about the place where you live,” she said.

“There’s lots of grass. And there are little trees. It’s not a forest. There’s the Pool.” It hesitated. “It doesn’t glow any more.”

She sat down and gently moved the creature into her lap. “Because the jewel is gone.”

“Garuna took it. And now the Calitarpsis doesn’t drip any more.”

“Tell me about the calitarpsis.”

“It’s a kind of flower. There is only one, ever. It’s almost as tall as you are. A — a — a dew, or something, comes from inside it, and drips down into the Pool. But now that the Jewel isn’t in the Pool any more, it doesn’t drip any more.” It hunkered down in her lap and started weeping again.

She stroked it gently. “I’m going to find the jewel and bring it back. But I have to get you home first, and I need your help to do that.”

“But I don’t know how.”

“I’ll tell you how. Okay? Now close your eyes, and think about your home as hard as you can, the way it is when it’s at its best. Okay?”

It didn’t answer, but it did as she asked.

She unfocused her eyes, and thought only about the creature on her lap. She felt its weight, its fur, the tips of its claws not quite poking through her trousers to the skin of her thighs. She felt its presence, its life, its self. 

The creature, like everything, was connected, even as she was. Though it was lost from its home, it was connected to it, just as the worlds were connected to each other. 

Everything was connected in a giant weave, or a pattern in that weave, or a juxtaposition of intersecting threads in that weave. She could go from one place to another in the meta-reality by following the connections. In this manifestation of this aspect of meta-reality, she could feel and follow the connection, the relation between the expression of it which was this creature in her lap, and the expression of it which was its home. It was as clear as crystal.

The creature hadn’t mentioned the tiny rain which always fell, not much more than mist. But it felt it on its fur and it opened its eyes, and when it saw that it was back home, it made a sound like a kitten calling, and jumped down off her lap. For a moment it was so happy that it didn’t notice the condition of the world around it.

Though Jeanette had never seen this place before, except…? maybe…? in some…? The ache of unreachable memory stopped her breath. She pushed the thought aside. She had never seen this place before, but she could see what was wrong with it.

The grass, sloping gently down to a pool no more than twenty feet across, was bedraggled, not smooth. It was wet, not misted. There were rough patches. It would have looked like a decent enough lawn back home, but here it was definitely unkempt.

The flower stood on the far side of the pool. It had four white petals, long and tapered to fine points, tinged with pink and tipped with red. It was just over four feet high. The upper petal was about six or eight inches long, the petals to either side were maybe twelve or fifteen inches long, and the lower petal was something over two feet long. They surrounded an open throat which shaded to gold, and from which the drops of nectar were supposed to come, dripping off the down-pointing lower petal into the pool.

In the angles between the petals were long, curving green spikes, each not quite as long as the lowermost petal. There were leaves on stems on either side of the main stalk, which were about the same size as the upper petal, not quite as sharply tapered, and double, like hands palm to palm with the wrists touching and the fingers apart, joined together at the base with a bit of membrane which extended half way along their length. The roots were visible at the edge of the bank, and curled down into the pool. It was dying.

The pool itself was just a pool. Its surface was less than a foot below the grassy banks, and it was just water. The mist which fell upon it kept it from shining with sky light, and while it — glowed was not the right word — while it should have had a numinous quality, it did not.

Some distance from the pool were several small trees, fifteen or twenty feet high, each different, each looking as if it had been created by someone with Art Nouveau or Art–deco inclinations while under the heavy influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. Or something. Their foliage was going limp. Twigs and leaves had fallen. Their outlines were no longer ideal.

Farther away was what should have been the cloud-like tops of the surrounding forest, but they were no longer cloud-like, they were just trees. The sky overhead should have been a clear blue despite the tiny rain, but it looked like a thin overcast. The light, though it came from no sun, should have been rayed and golden, like in an idealized romantic landscape. It was not. The knot at the center of the weave of reality was coming undone. The enemy had sent an agent past all safeguards, and struck at the heart of creation.

Perhaps she should be terrified by her enemy’s ability to do that, but she was more insulted and offended and outraged. She could not imagine what benefit her enemy might derive from the destruction of this place, and the consequent unravelling of the weave of reality. Or would its actions destroy just everything physical? Or just the connections?

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that the jewel be returned to the pool. And that the agent of evil be destroyed.

The creature was wandering around disconsolately, calling out for other creatures which it knew would no longer answer. She went to it. It saw her coming and came to her, as if for comfort. She sat down on the wet grass and let it crawl into her lap. She stroked its wet fur, which should have just sparkled with the tiny rain. “Tell me about Garuna.”


It took a while to learn the story. The creature had no experience outside the wither, and not much experience within it, so it could express itself in only the simplest of terms.

There was time in this world, but it was measured differently. There was no night and day. Instead, Gedeon was either present or away. Jeanette got no clear idea of who or what Gedeon was, other than that he was the protector of this place, his place of rest. The creature did not know what Gedeon did while he was away, nor why he hadn’t prevented Garuna from stealing the jewel.

The creature had no name for itself, but Gedeon called it Besaty. It wasn’t the only animal in the wither. There were things called liidas, which were apparently happy to be food for Besaty; tuveras, flying creatures, which she thought might resemble butterflies more than birds; and several individuals called endomans, which were neither animals nor people but something in between. They had all gone away after Garuna stole the jewel, just as all the animals which should have been in the fairy forest had gone away. Besaty wasn’t sure what death was, but he was pretty sure that the animals had not ceased to exist.

Garuna was from somewhere else. He had come during the last time Gedeon had been away, but had left before the protector’s return. When Gedeon had gone off again, Garuna had come back. He was active, and friendly, and playful, so despite the fact that he looked something like a six-legged frog, as near as Jeanette could tell from Besaty’s stumbling description, and seemed to draw the color out of his immediate environment, Besaty liked him. Sociopaths were always charming. Garuna made up simple games, and they played. Besaty, whose only experience with others was with the vastly superior Gedeon, or the somewhat remote endomans, was vulnerable, and succumbed to Garuna’s charm.

Garuna had learned on his first visit of the secret which kept the wither alive. That was the jewel at the bottom of the pool, fed by the dripping of the calitarpsis flower, which in turn was vitalized by the jewel. Garuna had played with just Besaty for a while, but eventually he had asked if they could play with the jewel.

It took a bit of convincing. Besaty was innocent and did not suspect any ulterior motive, but his role in the wither was something like that of a caretaker. All the other creatures had their own roles, none of which Jeanette really understood, and all were intricately interconnected with each other and with the wither. The jewel was the center, and everything depended on it. There were arcs and loops of inter-relationship between all the parts, including the lawn, the tiny rain, and extending even into the surrounding forest.

The intent of evil was obvious. Cut the binding knot and everything would fall apart.

Garuna, after some subtle pleading and deception, convinced Besaty to go to the bottom of the pool and bring out the jewel. Garuna and Besaty rolled it back and forth on the grass for a while — how easily this little creature was amused! — and then they put it back. Innocence deceived. 

They did this several times more, and then the last time, when Besaty rolled the jewel especially energetically, Garuna had missed the catch, or had pretended to, and the jewel had rolled a lot farther from the pool than it had before. Garuna had run after it, and Besaty had thought it was terribly funny. 

He stopped laughing when Garuna, having finally caught up with the jewel, just picked it up and ran off with it. Besaty had been so taken by surprise that, for a few moments, he had just sat there. When he had become aware of the life going out of the wither, he had decided that maybe he should go after Garuna. And then he had gotten lost.


Jeanette’s dismay and rage made it difficult for her to comfort the creature as she wanted to. “May I look into the pool?”


She carried him over to it and put him down on the bank. The surface of the water should have sparkled. It was gray. The water was clear, but it was lifeless. The roots of the calitarpsis plant were visible on the side of the pool, which was only a few feet deep, and extended down to the bottom. The place where the jewel should have been was obvious, a negative space, like looking at a picture from which the image of the jewel had been carefully cut out. The jewel belonged there, and it was not there.

She sat back and looked around. Where should she begin? The jewel was gone, but its connection with this place still existed. She knew how to follow the lines of connection and relationship from one world to another. This was similar.

She stroked Besaty a couple times. “I’ll be back,” she said. Then she stood and followed the connection toward the surrounding forest.



Chapter Forty Four: The Trail of the Thief

The connection between the jewel and the pool was obvious. Following it took Jeanette less time to get to the surrounding forest than if she had just walked there.

As beautiful as the forest was, the magic had gone out of it. The trees, as interesting and unusual as they were, were just trees. The vegetation on the ground was just creepers and bushes and herbs. What was happening here had to be affecting the mundane worlds, but she had no idea how, and she quickly shut the thought off.

The thread of connection was not a visible thing. Had she made it so, she would not have been aware of the forest. On the other hand, following the thread in the abstract of meta-reality might not have been possible, it was too fine compared to the rest of the weave. It would have been like trying to follow footprints while looking down from an airplane.

It was not with her eyes that she traced the route the thief had taken. It was not by using any physical sense at all. It was not a matter of just knowing, or a sense of rightness, or any other intellectual ability. It was, perhaps, more of a spiritual thing.

The ground rose gently. The trees were huge and widely spaced. She crossed a low ridge of rock, covered with moss now beginning to turn brown, and descended through trees of a different sort, taller and with a higher canopy. Some of the lower vegetation had flowers, all prematurely dead. The fallen leaves did not settle back into place as she passed, but kept the marks of her footsteps.

The descent was so gentle that she almost didn’t notice it. The trees gradually became smaller, and their leaves became larger, and the leaves of each tree had its own distinctive shape and subtle variation in color. There were more stones embedded in the ground, but they were flatter now, and partly covered with a variety of lichens instead of moss. There was no sound except for her footsteps. Even the soft breeze had died away. The barely perceptible smell was like that of a compost heap instead of a living forest.

Something unpleasant had been here. Garuna, just by carrying the jewel, was becoming associated with it, and was muddying the trail. The thief’s mystic effluvia became so strong that, after a while, she was following it instead of the underlying thread.

It was the wrong thing to do, which she discovered when Garuna’s icky trail suddenly ended. She stood confused beside a huge tree that was neither pine nor fern. Garuna had expected to be followed, and had doubled back. She retraced her steps, and did her best to ignore the spiritual stench Garuna had carefully left behind. At last she found the jewel’s trace, where he had carried it off in a different direction. She went that way.

She came to a place where slender trees like yellow-poplars and catawbas grew, where Garuna’s muddying became more intense, obscuring the jewel’s thread. She cast about for some time, looking for where he had turned aside, but she could not find it. The thief had spent far less time obscuring this part of the trail, but he had fooled her into wasting far too much time trying to sort it out, giving him even more of a lead.

The trail became more muddled and garbled the farther she went. The forest changed too, becoming less and less like faerie and more like something else. Every so often the trail made a subtle shift, so that while she was still in the world of the wither, she was passing through different aspects of it. If Garuna had intended to leave the world altogether, he would have done so long before now.

The trees became more like each other, immense of girth again, but bent and gnarled. They were widely spaced, but their foliage was so dense, that no light came through the leaves at all. The bark, exceedingly rough and fissured, became ever lighter in color until it was pale gray. And then she realized that she had gone around in a metaphorical circle. Garuna had made one more dimensional shift somewhere, and she had missed it.

Without changing direction, without turning right or left, she followed the arc again, hoping to find where he had shifted away. The trees became even paler, their leaves acquired a silvery sheen, and the ground was thicker with moss. But when she had come full circle again, she still had not found how Garuna had gotten away.

She was no longer alone. A slight rustling had begun among the leaves sometime during the last cycle. It was not a breeze, which would have been everywhere. It was local and intermittent, as if made by birds or animals. She had seen nothing, but the lowest branches were more than thirty feet up, the foliage was dense, and she had not actually been looking for anything up there. She suspected that it was not as small as a squirrel or a bird. Some of the sounds were like the soft scraping of feet on rough bark. Some were like the creaking of a small branch as weight was put on it. And now she heard what sounded like occasional whispers.

She saw nothing in the branches, not even a sign of movement. For a few moments everything was quiet. Then the soft rustlings, scrapings, creakings, and whisperings started up again. Some of it was directly above her. Whatever was up there, they were aware of her, and they had her completely surrounded. And whatever their shape, they were people, just as Besaty was.

She was an intruder, and if they didn’t like her being here, they must have been very upset when Garuna passed through. Maybe that was why they were so cautious. She said, “I’m trying to find the jewel, so I can take it back to the pool.” Everything went silent. “Where it belongs.” There was no response, just a feeling of animosity and distrust.

She sat down on the ground with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees. She heard a rustle or two, a creak or two, a scraping step or two. After a moment they were ready to listen. “Besaty told me about how Garuna stole the jewel and ran away with it.”

Rustle. Scrape. A whisper. A reply.

“That’s why I’m here, to bring it back.”

They didn’t exactly laugh at her.

She looked at her ring, then held it up so that the people above her could see it. Once again, there was absolute silence.

There was movement in the trees. Here and there leaves fluttered, shifted, rippled. A branch bent down a little. Smaller branches were pushed aside as if by hands. She could hear them whispering, but she could see no one. They were invisible. Or they were camouflaged. But why? From whom did they have to hide?

“I need your help. You don’t have to come down if you don’t want to. I can talk to you from here. But you know how important it is to get the jewel back.”

There was more whispering. Then a voice, like a child’s voice, but with many years behind it, called down. “You serve the Guardian.”

Jeanette looked at the symbol embedded in her ring. “If that’s who this represents, then I suppose I do.”

Another voice said, “You do not know?”

“I was given this ring by another woman, just before she died. Something guides me from time to time, but not here. I know there is something greater than my guide, and I guess that is what you call the guardian. Is that right?”

There was more whispering. Then something dropped down from the branches, hit the ground in a deep crouch a few paces from her, then stood.

It was hard to see. It wasn’t transparent, but it took on the coloring of whatever was behind it, like a chameleon absolute and ideal. From this close she could see that it was humanoid, a few inches taller than she, fur-covered and without clothes, possibly male. It had very large eyes which were much more visible than the rest of its body, large rounded ears laid flat against its head, and a furry tail which swayed from side to side. “You could not wear the ring,” he said, “if you were not true.”

“The woman who gave it to me wanted to keep it from the people who murdered her and her companions.”

“The Enemy cannot wear the ring. It can only keep it from those who can.”

“Does the enemy come here?”

“Never. But it tries to send its servants here. None of them have ever gotten close to the Wither, until this one which calls itself Garuna. We will all die.”

“Not if I bring the jewel back.”

Three others of his kind dropped to the ground behind him, and came to stand with him. Then he said, “You have the will, but do you have the power?”

“I have fought the enemy before. Or, at least its servants. People who call themselves the Arkenome. And others.”

“And you have defeated them. Or you would not be here.”

“What is an arkenome?” one of the tree people asked.

“It’s a servant of the enemy who is sent to try to take control of a people, or a nation, or a world, so he can destroy it, or use it to destroy others.”

“Is this creature from outside an arkenome?” another asked. More tree people came down, and whispered together as they watched. 

“It doesn’t matter. I will destroy him when I find him. And then I will bring the jewel back and put it in the pool. But I’ve lost its trail. Can you help me?”

“We saw which way it went,” the first of the tree people said.“We cannot go that way. Do you think you can?”

“I’ll find out if you can you show me the way.”

He looked at his companions on either side, and spoke to one of them, “Can you do that?”

“I can try,” the woman said.

“All right,” Jeanette said. “Show me what you can.”

The woman came forward, and those nearest Jeanette stepped aside. Her camouflage made it difficult to see the details of her face, but Jeanette thought that she smiled.

“It was like this.” The woman turned away, as if to lead Jeanette farther in the direction she had been going, but she just stood there, her back to Jeanette, her hands up in a gesture of surrender. She tilted her head back. Jeanette guessed that she had closed her eyes. Then she moved her left hand, as if she were tentatively feeling along an invisible wall. “This way.”

Jeanette came up beside her. The woman did have her eyes closed. Jeanette looked at the woman’s left hand, but saw only that it was slightly forward of the other. Then she let herself think about the thread of connection she had been following. There was a kink where the woman’s hand was. Or an attenuation. Or a going around a corner. “I see it now.”

The tree woman smiled at her and stepped aside.

Jeanette looked around at them. “I don’t know how long this will take, but I will be back.”

She let herself see the thread of connection as it really was, a relationship, not a string of any length, and saw how the things fit each other, how the jewel fit the pool. Something changed in her peripheral vision. The tree people ßwere no longer there. She had left them. But the way she had to go was clear to her now. Garuna, believing that he was safe, had stopped trying to conceal his tracks and had hurried on.

The forest continued to be ancient and silvery, but after a while the silver faded as the gnarling of the trees and branches went from Robin Hood romantic to haunted forest. The fallen leaves were drifted and unkempt. The moss turned brown, then disappeared altogether. After a while there were no leaves on the trees any more, and the stones and boulders sticking up out of the ground were stained and broken and distorted.

It wasn’t the loss of the jewel which made the forest this way, though the theft may have made it worse. Death and decay were part of the forest’s nature. It was the counterbalance to the life surrounding the pool. Jeanette was approaching the opposite side of this little world.

There was life here, though not of the kind which most people usually enjoyed experiencing. The trees collapsed and fell, and became infested by a variety of ugly fungi, slime-molds, wet lichens, and webby things. Some of it moved. And the smell went from composting forest, to mildewed wood, to rotting vegetation, to back of the refrigerator decay.

There were more rocks and boulders, broken where they were not lichen-covered. The soil between them was bare, or fungusy, or spongy. The ick slid off her boots, but the cuffs of her trousers became filthy.

The sky overhead was gray and pressed down on her. It got darker and colder. A wind sprang up, changing direction moment by moment. There were no trees at all by now, and the low vegetation was sparse and misshapen and cancerous. 

Slimy things moved out of her way, some of them longer than her arm. Creatures like unhealthy mixtures of centipede, spider, crayfish, and cockroach, no two the same, scuttled into and out of cracks in the rocks and holes under the boulders. Most were only a few inches long, but some were longer than the slime-things. They grated and clacked and crackled as they moved.

The land descended. The ground between the boulders got lumpy and softer. It was wet and sucked at her boots. Sometimes she felt something wriggling under her feet. She didn’t think about it and went on.

The boulders were taller than wide, most of them were three or four feet, some six or seven. None of the standing stones stood straight, all were slightly tilted, just out of true.

The link to the jewel did not run straight, but angled, first around one rock, then another. It avoided standing pools and places where there was an oily slick on the ground. Jeanette avoided those places too.

Things that were not toadstools, some almost as tall as she, swayed but not with wind. Whitish worms, as long as her hand, tinged with pink, yellow, green, or gray, clumped and crawled and wriggled away from her. The sky overhead became black. The stale smell of advanced mildew and long stagnant pond-bottoms became stronger.

All this would go away if the jewel were not returned to its rightful place. Didn’t Garuna know that? Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe there was something he feared more than oblivion. 

She shivered. The spirit began to leak out of her. Something that could insinuate an agent into the heart of everything. Something against which her predecessors had failed. Her pace slowed, her shivering increased.

That something wasn’t what she had to face at the moment. It was just Garuna now. She didn’t know what powers the creature had, perhaps he was stronger than she and she would die. Someone would find her boots, with her bones still in them. Or maybe they wouldn’t. If her successor didn’t have the ring, could she do anything at all?

That was not going to be her problem. The boots, the footprints on the white plane, those women must have had the ring, or have gotten along without it. Or, if they had had it, it had gotten to another place somehow. Worrying about the mechanics of the succession of the tokens was not her responsibility. Her duty lay ahead. If only she weren’t so tired.

She stopped moving. She had every reason to be tired, but her lack of spirit was not due to fatigue or fear of failure. It was this place which sapped her energy, as it sapped life. The fungi and slimes and arthropods seemed to be doing all right. Or maybe they were dying, too. She couldn’t tell.

Failure would be so easy. She didn’t have to face Garuna. All she had to do was sit here in the muck, with crawling things under her butt, and the end of everything would come.

That would certainly take care of her mother.

The return of anger was dangerous. In any other context but this, such anger could lead to actions she could never take back. But here, who was there to take out her anger on but Garuna? It wasn’t a question of whether he deserved it. Maybe he didn’t, slave as he was to the Ecliptor, or to the power behind it. But that didn’t matter either. Nor did her feelings on the subject one way or the other. The only thing that mattered was returning the jewel to the pool.

She wished she had something a little larger than her dagger. Not the Tash Griaf, she hated the thought of that even here. Any other sword would do. Or bludgeon. That little six-legged toad was going to die.

She kept going, and it wasn’t much longer before she saw, in the darkness ahead, a mound of some sort, uneven of outline, with vapors rising from it. A pale spark, every now and then, crawled across its jagged surface. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, and her throat tightened in an unvoiced cry. This was the negative of the pool of life, and she would have to go in.

The darkness was deceiving. It wasn’t a mound, it was a hill, bigger than a football stadium, a pile of spiky and jumbled stones. There were fungi on it, smaller than near by, distorted, necrotic, mutated, in the colors of rotten meat and decay. The ground around it was bare, boggy, and steaming. The vapors rising from the mound were not water. There were crevices, gaps, and openings here and there among the jumble of rocks. The jewel was in there somewhere. The thought of crawling through a tight passage was almost more than she could bear, and she cringed convulsively. She had always been just a little claustrophobic. Just a little. Until now.

She looked for the thread of relation between the jewel and the pool. She had lost track of it in her dismay at the sight of the mound, but she quickly found it again. Garuna had entered the mound through a gap in the jagged rocks no more than two feet across. She shrank. Her flesh crawled. She looked into the opening. It turned and bent away. Even had not the thought of doing so nearly paralyzed her, she could not go in that way. She simply could not fit.

She backed away, then slowly went around the mound toward the left. She could sense the jewel deep within it, even though she was no longer following the connection. She went about a quarter of the way around the mound, to where there was an opening, high in the side, which glowed slightly with light many times reflected, so dim that had the light outside been even as bright as starlight she would not have seen it. But the light coming from the opening, fifty or sixty feet up the slope above her, was the only light there was really. And that was the way she had to go.



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