There were several things competing for Terence Ransom’s attention: There were the giants raining giant boulders down on him; there was King Oberon, the being of vast power he had been counting on, unconscious in his harms; another giant attacking his friend Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone, who was fighting, for the first time in Terence’s experience, without armor; and there were the giant boulders completely blocking the tunnel mouth that was their way out of this unfriendly universe.
He was far from defenseless: he could pull out a weapon by breaking the sixth wall and fire at the giants--if he only had a free hand. He tried to avoid, first, fear and panic, and two, exasperation at what Oberon had presented as a simple field test turning into a we’re-gonna-die predicament. So he kept moving, trying to figure out what rocks he wouldn’t be killed behind if he tried to hide. He also tried to change his grip so that he could support the sorcerer with one hand and fire with the other.
Ultimately, he felt, the revival of the sorcerer was their best ticket out, but since he had little or no idea what Oberon really was, he didn’t know if slapping him on the face or whispering his name in his ear would do anything at all. The boulders were bouncing like beach balls around him, and any shelter seemed doubtful, so he shifted and shifted. He finally got a good solid projectile rifle in the wrong hand, and his first burst went right up into the blue sky. Still, it was a start.
Over at Silvertyger’s side, the giant’s roars of anger leapt up an octave into a roar of pain, and something fell with a thud. Terence adjusted his grip and, unable to do anything like aim, fired lower and lower until he actually heard bullets hitting things, and switched to a horizontal sweep. Since he didn’t have to worry about running out of ammunition, he just kept firing.
After entirely too long, he felt a muscle twitch in Oberon’s inert form. Immediately the king’s form became far too heavy to hold, so he let him fall. This enabled him to aim with some precision at the edge of the cliff, but apparently the giants were just hurling their truck-sized rocks from further back.
Then three things happened.
All sound ceased. The boulders all turned to fog. And everything else acquired a thick purple outline.
In the quiet, Oberon’s voice said, “Gentlemen, let us withdraw.”
They walked rather briskly through the tunnel and into the stone-walled chamber in the city of Avalon. Terence turned around and wiped his white-gloved hands over the wall, removing the chalk drawing and turning it blank again. He felt rather than heard Oberon’s reaction: he was not going to leave the interdimensional passage up no matter what valuable data might have been extracted by further study. There were limits.
Lord Elphinstone was considerably less upset than Terence felt a similar exasperation, though far more affectionate. The humanoid tiger obviously considered what they had gone through a good workout, and he was adjusting his shoulders and cracking his neck. He was also, as ever, without a scratch. When Oberon asked “What have you got in your hand, milord?” Silvertyger opened his paw to reveal a severed hand--a regular sized, even undersized hand. “I hope you don’t mind giving me that as a sample?” The tiger handed it over saying, “Trophies are meaningless.” Oberon dropped it into a heavy iron box.
Then he turned to Terence, his face a mask of worry. “This was much more than a miscalculation than my part, Dr. Ransom. The protections I put on us should never have put us in the least bit of danger--especially from the elementary enchantments presented against us. I am not the overconfident buffoon this would seem to paint me as, and it’s very serious.”
“I’ll confess I felt that way,” said Terence, his anger (such as it was) fading. “But then what?”
“The simplest explanation is that there’s something about traveling by these drawings that depletes or revokes magic. That’s possible, but the literature shows nothing similar. The next level is that the force that has dogged your steps through dozens if not scores of universes, has found a way to affect this process. It has plausibility: if it’s after you in some way, it would be greatly in its interest to deny you such a powerful method of mobility.”
“But the next level is that there is something wrong with me.”
“I would rather stay irritated with you, frankly, your majesty.”
“I would rather you did. But come, the both of you. I am eager for some lunch.” And they left the chamber.
Jeanette was sitting in bed. She had been able for a day or so to walk around her spacious bedroom without exhausting her self, but was now in the stage of being in the big soft bed a luxurious indulgence. Upon her caretaker’s insistence, she had used her gear-driven wish-fulfillment machine to give them samples of both lumpia and halo-halo so that they could reverse engineer it, as Dada would say, and they had succeeded beautifully, if just a bit short of Gladys’s perfection. Plus, they gave it to her for breakfast.
But her principal task was far less luxuriating. She had come to fortify herself by a couple of chapters of her fantasy novels on her tablet before diving in. Dutifully she set the tablet down and pressed one of the jewels on her necklace.
“They brought in another savage little animal from the edge of the forest today, and I was expected to extract useful knowledge from it. Yes, it was sentient, but again that sentience is just a small bright patch on a dull, dull stone, and what it knows is nothing we haven’t seen before…”
The mantis’s voice droned on and on, just one tone of deep unhappiness and weariness. Jeanette felt sorry for her, especially since she was the heir apparent of the bug kingdom inhabiting what once was Haven--but days of this was really wearing down her sympathy. But she was looking for clues, and she was forcing herself to imagine herself being in that awful place. Still--go out and climb a tree or something! Jeez!
She had discovered that the jewel did seem to obey universal laws--slide up for more volume, down for less, Right (her right, wearing the necklace) for fast forward, and her left for reverse. She resisted the temptation of the fast forward, but had played with the volume so that the mantis’s whining (there, she said it) didn’t grate so much.
But as had often happen, with the volume too low, she tended to drift off to sleep. So it was today--but today there was a difference. She was in a state where she was almost asleep and almost dreaming, and the mantis’s voice was mumbling on and on--but now there was another voice, high and beautiful, faint behind it. Now that’s what I want to hear, she told herself in the dream, and listened to it talking about wonderful things--
--and she drifted up into a level just before waking, and that faint distant voice was real. It seemed like she was hearing it from behind a wall, or maybe more than one--and only behind the picket fence of the mantis’s whining. She was fully awake, and straining to hear.
There was noting intuitive about how to turn one voice up and the other down with a plain smooth jewel, so she found herself just holding two, then three fingers, and wishing hard. She had just learned that wishing was a real thing hadn’t she? She tried to focus on that lovely voice…
She gradually found that the voices had switched for her, with the mantis in the background and the voice (it was like a flute, or maybe--what was it called?--An oboe) up front.
She leaned back in pleasure, for this voice talked about breezes and clouds and looking up the names of flowers, and the shapes that ice made when it melted. And it never lost a note of joy--certainly by comparison.
Then she started hearing other things, though not as delighted, still with indulgence--mercy maybe. Jeanette would much rather hear her talk about the first stuff, but there might actually be clues in it.
After what might have been a few hours or perhaps most of the day, she heard something, that, being the child of her technology that she was, she wished she could tag or bookmark. As it was, she rewound a couple of times.
“The most difficult part of treating those who come in for healing is pressing down the center button. It shows the greatest evil the person had witnessed. By Havenlight, some of them are just impossibly bad! I want to run away, even though that’s the whole point of my task. Worse still, I think, is that they think that’s just the way things are, that that’s normal everywhere. That’s the part that drains me. Even the weariness of the next part--holding down the next jewel to heal that evil--even losing all that energy isn’t as bad as that one vision. Still, it makes Haven’s existence make sense.”
She practically memorized the whole section. While the mantis was, in a way, a princess, and she had fastened on that, the earlier owner of the jewelry may have been nothing more than--a nurse. And while she had built something out of the concept of the melancholy princess and started taking on that idea--a nurse in that brighter world was much more who she was. Much more.
But in the clue department, she now knew (maybe) what another of the jewels did! Healing! Taking time and energy, but healing! That was a real piece of information!
Without intending to consciously, she moved her fingers over to the center jewel.
Her heart stopped as she saw, real as it had been, Kelly being cut in half by the beam from the Theravader ship. Right there in the room.
All her composure, all her well-being, all her everything fell apart.
She couldn’t call for her father. She moved her fingers towards the next jewel and pressed it, which at least made the boy gushing blood all over the floor vanish, but that wasn’t enough.
When her attendants looked in on her later, she found that she had fallen into a coma, and the alarm was sounded.