Snakes weren’t slimy: she had been taught that in school, but this thing was. It had a lizard-like face, except that slime dripped over its luminous eyes. But it was twenty-feet high, and it was turning right for her.

Jeanette wasted no time: she may have still been in shock from the death of so many of her friends, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t ready to fight. She reached up and back and pulled out a heavy projectile launcher, held it up and let fly with an extended volley. When the slimy skin turned out not to be soft, she dropped the launcher and pulled out an energy projector. She aimed it right for the eye. The slime over the eye caught fire, but it didn’t destroy it. It did, however, cause it to convulse.

O Tse and Lord Elphinstone were standing at the base of the head: the weasel-bear plunged his pike deep into the skin behind the skull and the tiger slit a gushing wound with his longsword. Unfortunately the things anatomy didn’t have the usual weaknesses, so the two warriors went to work on the skull itself.

The fact that the monster had seemed to single her out angered her more than it scared her--although there was plenty of that, too. But the last monster--sent out of the Wombflash Forest to attack them in Avalon had done the same thing, so it wasn’t a paralyzing surprise. She kept firing. The slime caught fire, and the skin bubbled and cracked, which caused jellylike shudders to go down its massive bulk, but it continued to advance on her.

Her father, Senhor Capoeira Capybara, and Grandmère Hutan lined up on either side of her, all carrying heavy energy projectors, and they concentrated fire in a path across the thing’s face. O Tse and Silvertyger, having not had success with the brain case--in was beginning to look as if the thing had a very undeveloped nervous system-- were slashing their way towards another target: the eyes.

The capybara shouted, “It’ll open its mouth to take you. Then--just like with the bugs at Haven, no?” Jeanette nodded, satisfaction rising in her.

The two big furred warriors now struck simultaneously at the thing’s eyes. And where neither projectiles nor energy beams had penetrated, the pike and the longsword bit deep. The eyebals flapped open horribly, and thick fluid poured out of each orb.

That still didn’t stop the thing’s advance, though. The head was no more than fifteen feet away when the mouth opened. The jaws were edged with ragged shards, and the throat was a pulsing tube of waving cilia. At a rodent-whistle from Senhor Capoeira, he and Jeanette dropped their weapons, reached back beyond the sixth wall and came back with big black spherical bombs with thick sputtering fuses and threw them down the gullet. All six of them dove for cover.

The explosion, when it came, distended the slime-snake mightily, but still didn’t shatter it. But it did rear up nearly a hundred feet high, convulsed, and vomited out what seemed like all of its guts onto the black ground.

The pink, black and white conglomeration lay there pulsing and twitching, and, insanely, trying to move. O Tse and Lord Elphinstone waded into the mass, hauled up a thick white cord and proceeded to hack it into short pieces. At length the mass stopped moving, and the external pard lay there like a particularly unattractive punctured balloon.

They spent about fifteen minutes hiking away from the battle site, until the stench wasn’t so overpowering. Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone’s armor was, as it ever was, mirror-bright and untouched. Dr. Ransom took the remarkable blankets from the World of Rose and Briar out of his backpack and handed them around. They sopped up the unspeakable ichor and, once they had been laid out on the ground, all the stuff and stench was gone.

“That was a good fight,” said O Tse. “I am glad to have you as companions.”

“It was harder than it should have been,” grumbled the capybara. “I think we have to up our game.”

“You, young Jeanette,” O Tse said to her, “The one who awoke me from my dream of Exile wore a necklace similar to yours. I wonder that the beast might have singled you out because of it. I should say first, you fought fearlessly and well.”

“Thank you,” she said, her bleakness returning. “Can you tell me about her?”

“She called herself Parvati. She was like you--a Yahoo--but her skin was like gold and her eyes were as green as old bronze. No hair was atop her head. She seemed young to be so wise.”

“Did she mention a place called Haven? Or the Pilgrims?”

“She said very little about herself, and often it was irritatingly mythic. She said, for example that ‘As my namesake covered the eyes of Śiva and turned the universe dark, so I must try to undo some part of that.’ ”

Senhor Capoeira interrupted to hand them sandwiches. “At very least we won’t be forced to chopping up our mucilaginous friend over there to survive. I did manage to shove plentiful supplies down a portable hole Dr. Ransom drew.”

The crows, who appeared as soon as food made its appearance, said through Jeanette’s bracelets, “Just in case you want to know, our slimy buddy has become a real feeding frenzy sight: those flat things practically covering him, and a wide variety of nasties fighting over tidbits,” Thyrsis said.

“And if you’re asking why we’re telling you this, it’s to inform you that this landscape isn’t as barren as it appears.” Antithyrsis added.

“Plus, you started without us,” Thyrsis said.

“I have one question,” O Tse said. “Parvati had me go through a long ritual, both purifying myself, remembering every battle I was in, until I could fashion my spirit weapon. But you use them in a profligate fashion. It bewilders me.”

The capybara shrugged. “It’s how I was taught, by a dying toon. He called it ‘breaking the sixth wall.’”

“Then I have learned something quite useful,” O Tse said.

After they had eaten and the blankets gathered up, they consulted O Tse’s floating flower petal and headed out. After what might have been a whole day of trekking over irregular ground, they found a narrow ravine that offered them some real shelter and concealment, and they decided to make camp after a fashion and get some sleep.

Jeanette frankly dreaded falling asleep, because she knew that what she would dream about was the explosion of the Paradox Swan and nothing else. But she was very tired from the battle and the march, and she didn’t have the luxury of being sleepless.

She touched the necklace: it was to be expected that there would be similar one, but where did this Parvati get hers? And while she had managed to tune out the endless complaints of the Mantis Princess to hear the voice of the healer from Haven, might their be a way to tune even finer to hear the buried voice of the original Pilgrim possessor of the necklace?

Sleep finally took her with her hand resting lightly on the necklace. When she began to dream, it was not where she thought she would be.

She was amid the opulent tents and beautifully garbed revelers on Ambremerine. She was (was she older?) dressed like them, but felt naked as she stood (knelt?) before the magnificent woman she knew to be the Goddess.

“Why did you let my friends die? They should have had adventures everywhere forever!”

The goddess said “I did it to break your heart, daughter. To break you.”

“I’m not your daughter! I’m his daughter!”

“You are nothing and no one, Jennifer Random,”

And the Paradox Swan exploded, and she woke.


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