She had thought she had been ready, but she wasn’t.
They had emerged into the dark halls of the castle once known as Haven, but was now the center of a brutal nation composed of various kinds of bugs. Jeanette Ransom had first come here to save her father from them--and now her father was dead.
As soon as they were all through the portal, they took off at a run, making as many turns in the corridors of the vast place, because the thing that had torn him in two--torn him in two!--had followed them through the transdimensional portal to do the same those who remained.
She was not ready for it. Her father had talked about it, she had talked to herself about it, she had lost other people and survived--but no she wasn’t courageous, she was just a little girl, and she was HIS little girl.
Only not any more.
She was running, and trying to think how to survive, but the rest of her--there wasn’t a rest of her. It was gone.
They ran into a chamber where three or four hallways connected, and Lord Elphinstone chose the rightmost. Jeanette remembered how the castle hadn’t been even remotely crowded--and realized she didn’t know when in its history they were arriving. Across universes time really didn’t mean anything, and times didn’t correspond. When they went back to Avalon they had landed a little while after they had left, but they could be thousands of years before or behind.
“In here,” Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone said in a low voice. They entered into a low chamber with a tiny outside window and--most important--a heavy latched door. Once they were in and the latch thrown, Jeanette put her back against the wall, slid down it, and let out a sob that filled the room.
The other three were around her then, Senhor Capoeira Capybara hugging her into his fur, Lord Elphinstone putting her hands in his enormous paws, and O Tse the Weasel-Bear down on his haunches looking into her eyes.
“The death of our father is something we know from the earliest time has to happen, and yet is impossible. Jeanette--daughter--we grieve with you for the life of a hero. We will stand and defeat this thing, strike back at the force that made it, and prevail,” the tiger in the mirror armor said.
“And keep you safe,” O Tse said.
“I--I’ll be--” Jeanette began.
“Hush, child. We know you will.” O Tse put his paw on her knee.
“Listen,” said Lord Elphinstone, rising and striding towards the door. “The castle is stirring. In alarm, I would say.”
“I don’t know whether this was part of your calculations,” the capybara said, “but beyond being a fierce army we have no emotional attachments to who might do our work for us, these bugs also have a--what was it?--Emperor-god?--who’s being eaten alive by Deep Chaos. The mere scent--the mere vibration of our monster should drive them to fury.”
“I’d not forgotten,” said the tiger. “But I also recalled their weapons technology was not at a very high level--unless at this point they’d unlocked more of the secrets of the builders of Haven.”
Senhor Capoeira had filled Jeanette’s lap with a variety of snacks from his wallet, “Speaking of which, I really wish we’d had the chance to bring one of those power banks with us. Joking! But my little warp-gun kludge won’t work without that level of a power source.”
“So we couldn’t sneak back for one?’ O Tse asked, half-jokingly.
“Despite the damage we did, I think it’s safe to say that Deep Chaos has completely overrun Clerestory by now. They’d have nasties at our point of departure,” the capybara said.
“I hear discharges. They seem to be coming from another part of the castle,” said Silvertyger.
“It’s a tribute both to your hearing and the thickness of this door that I hear nothing,” said Senhor Capoeira.
“If they are at a distance then perhaps we can draw another portal and be away from here,” O Tse said.
The room grew silent.
At length Lord Elphinstone spoke slowly. “You know my personal code of conduct, if you know me at all. But the vow I made to Dr. Terence Ransom was to keep his beloved daughter safe. And that comes before even avenging his death.”
In the further silence, Jeanette’s voice came out huskily. “Don’t look at me. I don’t know what I want. What I do want I know I can’t have.”
“But where do we run to?” The capybara asked. “We know where the rest of our kind is--if they’re anywhere at all. And we’re not just wanderers now: we’re out as a group that destroyed an entire Deep Chaos fleet. Wherever we run, wouldn’t it find us? Could we dig a deep enough hole that would justify our diving into it? I’m no hero…” his voice trailed off.
“The Senhor Capoeira who’s not a hero I’d never have met,” said O Tsu.
“Still, your point should be taken into consideration,” the tiger said.
Jeanette laid the snacks aside, most of which she hadn’t eaten. “Let’s go,” she said.
Once the door was opened, the cacophony was lot indeed. A strange smell was in the air, a little like decay, but there was a sting of ionization in the air. This hallway was still empty, but there were buzzes and clicks very close to them.
Jeanette touched the force-shield jewel on her necklace, remembering that this was the place she had gotten it. Once the opaque barrier was nestling against the corridor wall, she took out the black chalk and drew a black area and the white target end, leaving out the purple symbol and the decision tree. The shield came down: the others pulled out weapons; and Lord Elphinstone drew his longsword.
They walked to the end of the corridor, and the cross corridor was a swift-moving mass of big insects, from chitons the size of dogs to a few beetles the size of iridescent automobiles. Jeanette wondered if the necklace and bracelets, which once was worn by the heir to the Emperor-God, would still have any authority--but none of the insects paid any attention to them.
So they strode quickly along with the flow, up stairs and up. Jeanette knew where they were headed: the highest level of the castle where the Emperor-God and Deep Chaos were to be found.
They reached one broad staircase, once probably ceremonial, and saw it: it was the thing, covered in shifting beetles with dark fluid flowing from the interstices, and with two large mantises, hanging on its chest and head, toothed arms scraping the thing’s eyes. It was bringing its arms down and crushing bugs by the dozens.
It had also tripled in size.