The mantis stood and seemed to make a grooming motion with her front arms. Jeanette could see both the many tiny mouth parts move as well as the hairs on the arms right before the translator-jewelry spoke in a husky resonant female voice.
“We have done this, not out of hate, but out of desperation. We have been presented with a great destructive force that will destroy us if we are not prepared. What we have managed to gather is that this force once struck you of the white gloves,” and she spread an arm, which caused a chitter from the jewelry until she brought it back, “and which you called the Exile.”
Terence Ransom said faintly, “I--told you I knew nothing and I remembered nothing…”
The mantis said, “We could leave no avenue unexplored.”
“And that means torture!” Grandmère Hutan cried out. “Let me tell you, before any sympathy arises in your good breasts, that we are not the first, nor the second! There were dozens before us, and this one gained nothing by her techniques, and never, not once, did she come to the conclusion that she was at a dead end! Each and every one tested unto destruction!”
“I deny none of this,” the mantis said, “And you may kill me for it. But it would be best that you knew all.”
“Then show them the lower chamber!” The aged orangutan’s voice shrieked like a sandstorm. “Let them see that!”
It was so obvious how parched Grandmère’s throat was that Jeanette rummaged around in her backpack. (The fact that her tablet was not in a million pieces was remarkable.) Her hydration water bottle was also still intact, so after giving her father a sip, she went over to the orangutan to give her some.
The mantis walked over to a low door and pulled it open. Grandmère put her lonsg arm around Jeanette’s shoulder and came shuddering to her feet. All of them except for Terence went towards the door. The room was unlit by torches, so Capoeira dislodged one and came forward to give it light.
Instead of the carnage they expected, they say a chamber filled with many small heaps of ashes. “Seventeen,” croaked Grandmère. “Seventeen they destroyed by iron and fire and worse. Think seventeen before you listen to this creature’s calm voice.”
But Senhor Capybara said, “But I have witnessed the death of toons, as we call them, and they don’t seem to die so completely. Did you take their gloves?”
The mantis said, “No. We could not take them off while they were alive, but when I sent to have them taken from the bodies, they were gone.”
Something stirred Jeanette deeply. Ash--she had seen ash once before. She moved away from the orangutan and started to run her hands over the hewn stone walls. She went at it long enough that Lord Elphinstone shifted his weight impatiently, but the capybara raised a hand. “She knows what she’s doing.”
Unlike her search in the office in Hell, the rough stone pulled and slid under her gloves, and a few times she thought there might be a catch where there was none. But finally she hit a space where her gloves responded. She ran over it three times to be sure. “Anybody have a piece of paper?” She asked.
The mantis stepped forward and unfurled her wings. It was astonishing: a gorgeous display of translucent color in a splayed pageant. Could this cruel thing sport wings like that? She pulled a large scale loose, and it immediately lost its color, turning dead white.
Pinning the scale to the stone with one hand, Jeanette grabbed some ash from the nearest pile and rubbed. Not much stuck, so she took ash from another pile, and then another. “I knew it!” She cried, and held up the scale to others. There, nearly wiped clean, but still identifiable, was the mark of the Decision Tree.
Stirred by something she knew not what, she ran back into the other room and rummaged in her backpack. She pulled out the accordion set of souvenir postcards from the World of the Princess, and ran back. She looked at each, until she found one of a flowering meadow leading down to the Castle Lake where rabbits and hedgehogs basked in the sun..
“One, two, three, four, five...seventeen!” She shouted.
The capybara and the orangutan crowded around her. “Yes, yes, Yes!” Capoeira said eagerly, and Grandmère rasped, “Thus we win! Thus we win, even here!”
The mantis came forward slowly, shadowed by Lord Elphinstone. She extended her pincer toward Jeanette. Jeanette gave her the postcard set, and the mantis inspected it closely. She handed it back, and her jewelry said, “Now I will die much more easily. But there is more you must see.”
They left the dungeon, made a path through the lower levels towards some narrow stairs. They started to climb. With the mantis leading the way and Silvertyger right behind her, sword drawn, followed by Grandmère, and the capybara supporting Dr. Ransom with Jeanette holding her father’s hand like a flower, they met no one. When they finally encountered some beetles, the soldiers did not so much as look at them.
The fortress was windowless, and still dark even as they reached what must have been close to its top. They paused before tall and heavily reinforced doors, flanked by two other mantises. They opened the doors without a motion from their guide.
It was a very tall and narrow room, and for the first time Jeanette saw ornamental carvings in the black stone. The only object in the room was an enormous angled mirror.
“It has been determined that the sight must be reflected twice with mirrors of a certain burnish for the sight to be endurable,” said the mantis. “Step up to the line in the stone.”
What they saw was an immense hall lit by a profusion of torches. In the center was a broad dais, and on that dais rested an enormous centipede, at least twenty feet long, twisted and reclining, slowly moving.
Surrounding the centipede was--something.
It was like a roiling cloud, but the cloud was full of images, and the edges of the cloud were like pinches in space, and the motions were like something alive.
And it was eating him.
“This is our emperor-god, a sorcerer of supreme power. Many years ago, he opened a gateway in his endless search for knowledge, and gave entrance to that which you see reflected. Were it not for his power, we would all be dead now, and the gods alone know how much more. He has transmitted his discoveries as to its nature, but those communications have dwindled of late. One of the first was an account of the Exile of the--the toons.”
They watched as one of the cluster of attendants--an insect Jeanette didn’t recognize, though it was like a hinged cockroach--stepped up to the Emperor-God. It broke off one of its own limbs and inserted it into the liquid coated socket of the centipedes nearest the--something, and then retreated.
“Now you know the fear. Now you know what drives us,” the mantis said. “And now you are free, and my life is in your hands.”
Jeanette looked at her father. What she saw wasn’t fear, but a keen-eyed curiosity and his sharp mind formulating answers.
She kissed his hand.