Jeanette was paralyzed. The mist was thick again, so she couldn’t see two feet in front of her. But whatever sense she had of the presence of her friends--Dada had once talked about it as smell and sound you couldn’t hear or smell consciously. But perhaps mixed with the sensing of air pressure or even electric charge--was sure that she was alone on this wide road. That wasn’t good.
But what the voice of Grandmère Hutan shouted--”I’m home!” Was what she was really, deeply afraid of, and she knew it. What if the goal of this quest stripped everything from her? What if she was really not Jeanette Ransom at all? What if she was on the edge of vanishing if the mist did? What if she cried out “I’m home!” and was suddenly someone else? What if all she loved went away and suddenly she didn’t even miss it? You could fight all sorts of monsters but how could you fight the happy ending? She wanted to cry and run but couldn’t move.
The wind picked up, and once again there was a darker mass in front of her that had seemed like a big building. She thought of a massive tower done in the same style as the columns of the causeway and the gateway, but it was only a vague shape. The mist closed in again and it was gone.
She was fighting furiously to take a step. It was just a thing, and she could move towards it or run away from it. She had all sorts of cool weapons and magical things up to and including a world-jewel. Not moving was the thing that was killing her!
But her voice couldn’t make her move.
The wind blew again and she used that pressure to stagger a couple of steps sideways. She used everything she had to continue to move. The only way that seemed to work was forward, so she continued to step forward.
Then the wind blew the mist away.
What she had thought was a building was certainly as big as a fortress or a palace, but it was one giant tree. The giant trees she had been walking through had all fallen away, but this was a thousand feet high, and as thick as a wood mountain at the bottom.
She took it in, and determined its mammoth shape, and she knew with a thrill that shook her bodily what it was.
It was the Decision Tree.
It was on every portal she’d traveled through--her father had drawn it in chalk to make a passage--and here it was itself.
Was she somehow back thousands and thousands of more years to the beginning of something? Was this the center of something. Could this take her anywhere? Anywhere she wanted?
Could it have taken Grandmère Hutan home?
They’d been stumbling around after mysterious names--the Night Land, the Redoubt--without knowing what they were, let alone how any of this stuff worked. And the wisest and most powerful beings they’d met didn’t seem to be sure either--certainly nobody had handed them a manual, Cosmic Infinity for Dummies. What was wrong? Were all the copies taken out?
At long last, courage had shown up inside Jeanette Ransom’s heart. Little spoiled Jeanette who had had way too many adventures. She started walking towards the Tree.
The Tree didn’t seem to have any inhabitants. Despite her initial impression there didn’t seem to be any artificial structures on or near it except for the causeway she was on. There were, though, plenty of vines from ordinary size up to pipeline size twisting around it. She was now close enough that branches were arching out over her head. The sky above was white with clouds.
The march of columns came to an end: the last columns were large and ornate. Were they meant to look like the Decision Tree? Had she seen any instances of the symbol on the long walk here/ No and no. Beyond the lip the pavement enlarged into a circle that surrounded the enormous base of the tree.
She stopped from natural caution. Nothing had happened yet--but Grandmère Hutan had cried out and was nowhere to be seen. The lack of humans (of any description) combined with the walkway didn’t tend to suggest a good or pleasant place. And a boundary was a boundary: she stood at the edge of the lip.
She wondered if she had gone thousands and thousands more years into the past--even from the Theravader world, and was now at the foundations of the web that extended across cosmic infinity. Was it great and wise beings who built out from here. Or were they arrogant conquerors? Or were they fools? Did Deep Chaos spread though this old system, or was it a defense?
She ran over her inventory in her head: she had her necklace and the enigmatic bigger necklace from the bunker in the Night Land: weapons she had, and a key to the Universal Library, and a World-Jewel, among other things. The one thing that might definitely be good was the set of chalks, but her father wasn’t here. Should she go on? Did Grandmère need rescuing? Should she find her way Home?
She stood there--and then jumped a foot as something touched the back of her neck. Something was crawling there. She stepped back from the lip. She writhed as something ran down her arm. Lifting it up so she could see, she was startled to see it was a green praying mantis. She had a history with mantises, and a baby one (or normal-sized one, she reminded herself) might be an unwelcome inheritance.
Then she saw that it was mechanical, exquisitely so, and that reminded her of Diotima. It ran down her arm and leg, and went to the lip of the walk. As it hopped down onto the road beyond, it fell apart. The parts then turned to dust and the dust burned.
She could hear the malign music of the Tree now, and feel a heavy energy of the place. It was like a dark music everywhere that she’d been oblivious to.
She turned and ran.
There was a protest without sound, and a power that dragged at her legs and her will. The mist began to close in front of her, and she headed directly for it. She hurtled into the mist, and her chest stitched as if she’d been running for a half an hour. But she didn’t stop.
The mist surrounded her completely, and she lost the sense of direction completely. She was just running, running to get away. She ran for a long time.
The mist finally cleared again, and she ran into O Tse. “Here she is!” He cried out, and the others converged from where they’d been searching.
She looked behind her, and there was no more mist, and the causeway went beyond the woods for many miles, to where a Gateway stood in the hills.
They gathered around her, and she fell back into the joyous pressure of other bodies, her father and her friends.
But Grandmère Hutan was gone.