“They might have had a point,” said Senhor Capoeira Capybara, as they stood before the gateway. “We all know what those troops are going to turn into.”
“They are different individuals than the ones we fought before,” Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone said. “And footsoldiers sent to the aid of their fellows are not to be despised.”
Jeanette didn’t want to enter the argument on either side. It all made her horribly unhappy. What do you do when the person you sympathize with turns out to be a mean-spirited--well, asshole?
The discussion was interrupted by an eruption of sound and stench from the gateway. They hurried away to the side and hid behind the twisted wires of the gate.
There was a change in pressure that hurt Jeanette’s ears, then a wet pop sound, and creatures started coming through the gate. They weren’t the things they knew as yetis this time, but bigger and more reptilian. Far more frightening was an enormous long thing that was almost as thick as the gateway and took minutes to get through, something like an eight-legged brontosaurus with hideous slimy skin that forced out bubbles as it walked. The whole procession stank.
“Okay, that settles that,” said the capybara. “I want to be on whatever side of the gateway that thing isn’t.”
“We should wait for the end of the procession. If there are alarms on the gateway, there may be a gap before they turn on again,” the tiger said.
When it was clear that the last monster had passed. The crows Thyrsis and Antithyrsis, who had circled round to the other side, dove through the gateway. As they did so, the rest hurried in and around the other edge.
What they encountered was surprising. Instead of more mountain wilderness, they were in a warm forest rising out of a misty swamp. But leading away from the gateway was a long flat causeway lined with smartly-designed columns of stone. The gateway itself was a monumental stone edifice, with flourishes and scrollwork. The causeway ran straight as an arrow through the enormous trees out to a vanishing point.
Jeanette looked at the stonework she was leaning against, and saw there was a panel with writing carved on it--writing which (no surprise) she had never seen before. She tried running her hand over it in the hopes that her bracelets might translate it, but no luck.
“This doesn’t look like it had a horde of monsters shambling over it just now,” Jeanette’s father said.
“Shambling and pooping,” said a crow over her bracelet.
“Shambling and pooping and sliming,” said the other.
“There’s a dignity to it,” said O Tse, looking around.
“Could it be we got shunted aside?” Said Grandmère Hutan.
“It’s possible, but if the gates were variable, the whole Theravader strategy would be meaningless. Our rescue mission could have gone anywhere,” said Dr. Ransom.
“I may be wrong, but I’m getting the feeling we might not be on the side we think we’re on,” said the capybara.
“That’s a big conclusion to take from some Art Deco architecture,” said Thyrsis.
“A valid point,” muttered Senhor Capoeira.
“Well, do we blow up the gate or not?” asked Grandmère, holding an ovoid in each hand.
“Mmm-I’m inclined not to,” said Dr. Ransom. “No monsters in all the time we’ve been standing here--and somehow this doesn’t feel like Deep Chaos.”
“Architecture again,” sighed Antithyrsis.
So they started to walk down the broad, flat causeway with the columns. The scenery wasn’t completely monotonous: the huge trees were clumped together or more open: the mist was thicker and thinner; at certain points you could see the black swamp water. Jeanette counted the columns as she walked and, sure enough, every twelfth one had a little shield with a squiggle on it. For lack of anything better, she started to look forward to the 144th one. But the trees and the mist and the water were, in their own way beautiful. She didn’t feel threatened. She wasn’t foolish enough not to stay alert, but the more she walked, the better she felt.
It was to be expected that Senhor Capoeira was the first one to break out a snack. It was one of those near-perfect peaches the sight of which made Jeanette want one too. It also reminded her that she had given the Queen of Hearts her wish-teleporter, and that meant no Snickers or Gummi-Bears for the foreseeable future. But she forced herself to thing noble and regal thoughts, and that helped some.
When he was done, the capybara threw the pit into the black water--and something very big and glistening rolled its back up and back down into the water, much of it bulk beyond the clear spot and into the mist. Well, that explained the monsters, Jeanette thought. Nobody said anything but they all stayed a little closer to the center of the road.
One hundred forty-four came, and all there was was a slightly larger shield and of different shape. So did two hundred eighty-eight, and, although she was quite a smart girl, she would have needed pencil and paper to figure out 12 x 12 x 12.
But shortly after 288, Jeanette saw in the causeway a tiny drop of red. Since she was toward the rear of the group, she wondered which one’s blood it was, and if they’d picked a scab or something. She stopped and bent over to inspect the drop. She felt the massiveness of Lord Elphinstone’s paw on her shoulder.
“Don’t touch it, daughter. By its scent this is Theravadan blood, and I suspect it is all that is left of an expedition. The feeling has been growing in me that this is a place of enormous power. Be on your guard.”
Simultaneously scared and reassured, as was so often the case with Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone, she stayed alert and daydreamed less.
Very gradually, the mist began to thicken, and soon it was nearly all white, with a glimpse of a tree-trunk now and then. She was worried, but she was next to Lord Elphinstone, which was about as reassuring as you could get, even including her father. But then a mild breeze came up, and the light opened up as if they were leaving the forest, and plain reassurance wasn’t enough.
There was a gust of wind, and they stopped walking. Jeanette got ready to pull out a weapon, but did not do so yet. The breeze began to feel that someone was running fingers across the back of her neck, and she felt that now was the time to prepare for something happening.
She started shifting her position left and right, and almost missed the white clearing just a bit to reveal the outline of an enormous building in the middle distance. Grandmére Hutan made an orangutan hoot of alarm--followed by an amazed and terrified exclamation. “I’m--HOME!”
Then the white closed in, and Jeanette Ransom was alone.