She was standing on the causeway lined by pillars, surrounded by swampy jungle, with mist ahead of her. Somehow that was as close as the chalk-drawn portals would bring her. It made an inconvenient kind of sense, but her scraped chest hurt like anything and her leg hurt to walk on. But why should anything be convenient at this point?
Gad was somehow, amazingly, with her. Beetles don’t nuzzle, nor should they, but she was close on her shoulder by her ear.
“Gad, you should leave. This is a beautiful place, and you should spend your last days in the green and sunlight. Not with me, because I’m going to die very soon. Today.” It wasn’t easy to say that. But she sort of had to, and it was good to have somebody to say it to. That, was as far as it went, however.
“No, Jeanette. I want to be with you,” her high sweet voice came over her bracelets. Which would have made her cry a while ago--but not now.
“Then please, just stay well out of the way. The last thing I want is to see you die too.”
She limped into the mist. It took some time for the Deep Chaos creature to make it through what should be a closed portal, but it was minutes rather than hours. She hobbled painfully into the mist and, just like before, was gripped. This time she didn’t resist, but felt the compulsion as a kind of relief.
She came out of the mist and to the end of the rows of columns on the side s of the causeway. There before her was the Decision Tree, big as a mountain against the blue sky flecked with white--and just like before, the tremendous sense of evil and menace. What she was gambling on--betting her life on--was that she had completely misunderstood this the last time she was here. Then, she had visions of the cosmic all being evil at the core; now, she believed that the Tree was driving her away because she wasn’t ready.
Grandmère Hutan hadn’t been killed--she had been sent Home--whatever that meant, but there had been joy and astonishment in her voice. And then, the thing that had dominated her heart was the desire to be back with her father and her friends--and that was gone. Was she ready? She had to be.
There was the same lip at the end of the causeway landing. She made to step forward--and couldn’t. She was paralyzed from making that step.
She almost crumpled. “What more do you want?” she whined.
Even though she didn’t entirely trust it, she raised her fingers to the Wisdom and Understanding stones on her necklace. But she missed and hit the previous stone, that she hadn’t tried before.
In her head was vividly the memory of the Pilgrims with their owl-eyes, telling her the list of the necklace:
At the time, she wondered what in the world a culmination stone could be for.
Now she knew.
She pressed the tenth stone on the necklace--and walked forward.
As she did so, the necklace and bracelets fell apart and lay in three piles of silver and jewels at her feet. She was dismayed and scared in a far more practical way, but walked the path that curved around and up the giant tree.
The tree was enormous, and smelled like all the green and living things there ever were. It didn’t seem to be charged with magic or spiritual power--and she did know what that felt like. It was just a tree.
She finally got high enough to touch the lowest branches. Leaves hung down close enough to touch. She craned her neck upwards, and didn’t see anything like fruit or nests or fairies (she had met fairies: they ran a train) further up--so she reached up and pulled at a leaf. It came off easily, and she looked at it. She had once seen a page in a book about the different kinds of tree leaves, but it hadn’t interested her. It was a leaf.
This had to be it, Jeanette said to herself. This was the Decision Tree--and was the symbol of tying the vast varieties of universe together. It stood against the cosmic force that was Deep Chaos. If this didn’t have the power to destroy one single speck or blob that was coming to kill her--to help destroy it--well, then, maybe the cosmos was bad at the core?
She struggled with despair as she returned down. The far more likely alternative was that she was still not ready. It stung her and pulled her down to think that, no, she wasn’t good enough, and maybe she was going to die here anyway--just the way that her stronger, wiser, and more courageous friends had all died.
She though she heard a sound in the distance. It was about time for the monster to put in an appearance.
She stood in the plaza, looking at the end of the misted causeway. She now had actually fewer resources than before rather than more. The thought rose up darkly that maybe the resource she needed was the black stone in her pocket--the one that would send her back home.
She shook her head.
She took off her backpack. Her white gloves as well as the Nemesis Gloves had burned off in the last battle with the creature, but she had spares. She rummaged in the pack, found them, and then stopped.
She did have a weapon in her backpack that she had not thought about. It had never crossed her mind even once--not after she had shown it to the Pilgrims. It wasn’t ordinary forgetting: it was as if it were completely wiped out from her mind. She was certain of it.
She had a second necklace.
She pulled it out quickly: it was bigger and more elaborate than the one she had been wearing all this time, and had twelve jewels instead of ten. And where she had gotten the first one at Haven, she had picked the second up in the Night Land, on the battleground against Deep Chaos. She put it on, along with the gloves and Nemesis gloves over them. She also, as kind of standard procedure now, pulled out the chalk and drew an incomplete portal. Then she put the backpack on, and picked up the leaf. It still seemed ike just a leaf, but maybe she had been given her gift.
The monster came through the mist. It was still in its last configuration, though bigger: like a dump truck full of skeletons and slimy-pulsing grapes. It wasn’t obvious how it propelled itself, but it came.
She stood there, now swearing at herself for her overconfidence. She had this bigger weapon, with twelve jewels--but couldn’t remember what they were, even though she’d been told. The knowledge jewel was gone--or rather was lying in a pile behind her, and she couldn’t identify it not in the necklace and might not work without it. Dammit! Fuck!
The monster was now almost able to reach her. She knew she couldn’t scream herself into remembering, so as she pulled out her displacement gun from beyond the sixth wall, she focused on the eyes of the Pilgrims, and their voices. She fired, and blew an ineffective hole in the monster.
She remembered. She didn’t remember the whole list, because it was all abstract nouns, and one of them was Birth and the other was Sex. But as the monster extended a claw made up of bundles of pointed bones, she remembered the last one, because it was the last and least comprehensible at the time.
It had been Instrumentality, and she knew exactly what it meant now.
She held the leaf from the Decision Tree in one glove, and touched the last jewel on the necklace.
The power came.
With a cry she ran at the monster, climbed up its bony jumble of a body, The great claws closed on her and bit into her back. She plunged the glowing Nemesis gloves into the greasy mass ans shouted in a cracked voice, “FOR MY FATHER!”
She was thrown twenty feet.
The thing started to crumple as if the space around it were a sheet of paper grabbed in a fist. Then there came the sweetest, most gentle sound Jeanette Ransom had ever heard, and the monster was gone.
She got up--or tried to. There was blood all over her, and one arm didn’t work. Her eyesight was going, and she could feel all strength leaving her.
Gad was there, and somehow she could understand her without the bracelets. “This was a day, Jeanette! You’ve won!”
“Im dying,” she said (or thought.) “I’ve done this before. I know what it’s like.”
With a trembling hand, she half stood over the portal drawing with the purple chalk. In a spasm, it crumbled in her grip, spreading a dust of purple over the drawing. She fell.
And thus it was that Jeanette Ransom, in the shadow of the Decision Tree and the light of victory, died.