“After all that, you’d think the stew would be special.” grumped Jack.
“What, you mean like it would give you super powers or something?” said Jeanette.
Jack scowled at her. “You’re slipping into the ‘more trouble than they’re worth’ category. Back into.”
“I’ll just remind you that this place was your idea.”
She acknowledged to herself that she was being just a tiny bit obnoxious. But the place was doing a lot of it, beyond their ancient phantom host. The overall feeling of dread was still there, even though she could more accurately identify it as layer on layer of sadness. And she was ashamed to admit that she was angry that Jack Shift, of all people, had seen her break down the way she had when the invisible thing had touched her face. Especially since she still kind of felt that way.
This guy is literally your last hope, she told herself. Don’t be a pest.
She was making sure Gad had some morsels as she said, “The big question is, where to now?”
“I don’t know. Hiding was never a long-term solution, I realize that. I think I accomplished your short-term goal for you since I have yet to actually see this monster of yours--buying you some time. But what beyond that? No idea.” He looked at her, softening his expression a little. “I was planning on using this place to stop and think--or to be honest, to stop thinking for a while. But I can’t do that here.”
“Look, I’m sorry, Jack. I--”
“Forget it. My problem is that I’ve seen you the way you are, and I can’t just drop you somewhere. But I can’t save you either. No, look--” he said as her face obviously gave her away, “you can stand there and be determined all you want, but you’re at your limit, Jeanette. You are. But unlike your friends, I’m not going to lay down my life for you.”
He stood there, scowling even worse, realizing that he’d said way too much. “I figured we’d just go skimming for a while. One or two footsteps per universe. It’s the best away to avoid detection, but I can’t do it for very long. But wee’ll be out of this place.”
Jeanette nodded. She reached out and took Jack’s hand, even though he initially shrunk from taking it. And they both stepped forward together.
It was cool, and there was nothing like it, she thought. The closest thing she could think of was going shopping when she was with Dada and running through the racks of pretty dresses while he was in the lawn and garden department. These were worlds, and grabbed at her, but soon just brushed against her face. Sun and night, interior and exterior, flash of heat and whiff of cold: she hoped Jack could keep an eye out, because she couldn’t even start.
She looked up at him, and saw that he was relaxed and maybe even happy. This was his zone, and she couldn’t imagine what it was like to be that way.
It had long been nothing but a blur for her, when he paused. Rather, he stumbled: they were in a building, and he pushed through to a street at night when he fell down to his knees.
“We--” he said, and then fell forward. He was unconscious, Fainted maybe, though she didn’t have any experience with people fainting. She looked around at the world: it was misty and foggy and old-fashioned. There were only one or two streetlights as far as her eyes could see, and they were of a strange color and flickered. She looked for a niche or a hiding place of some sort. Most of the buildings had stairs going up to their main doors, and with a great deal of effort, she pulled Jack into a corner of the nearest staircase.
She thought about using her necklace to heal him, but it was clear he was simply exhausted, and she didn’t know if that would even work. She took off her backpack, searched down in it, then searched in Senhor Capybara’s dimensional portable hole inside it. She came out with a soft flexible bottle that she hoped had something good in it. It had a top that peeled off, and she sniffed it: it didn’t smell like alcohol, at least, so she brought his head up and put it to his lips.
It took a long minute, but he revived, shakily grabbed the bottle and drank. She offered him a nicely fragrant flaky meat roll, and he ate and drank.
When he finally opened his eyes, though, the first words out of his mouth were, “Not this place. God I didn’t mean to come here--!”
There were things in the shadows, and they started to slide over Jeanette and Jack. She opened her mouth to scream, and they covered it.
They smelled like blood and death.
She could feel something opening on the inner surfaces of the things, and something stung in a number of places. She struggled and got to her feet, reached for her necklace even though she wasn’t sure which jewel to touch, then abandoned it to claw at the soft leathery things.
With a high thin agonized cry, Jack vanished.
Gad was now on her too, and it seemed as if she were biting at one of the things with her pincers. She managed to pull the thing off her mouth--they weren’t all that firmly attached, but there were a lot of them.
She staggered down the foggy street now, dragging her backpack because she knew that was her survival, picking at scraping at the things. There were sounds now in the street, and they weren’t human sounds like voices or footsteps.
Everything began to get a little grey, and her vision narrowed. The things had hurt when they stung, but the hurting had stopped, which made her a little frantic. She could feel Gad fluttering her wings and landing on another thing.
How long this had gone on, she didn’t know. She knew she had turned a corner, but the street looked the same. The fog may have thickened, or it may have been her.
There were footsteps now ahead of her, huge heavy ones.
Her hand, with a thing stuck to it, reached the healing jewel on her necklace, and some but not all of the fog cleared.
The monster stood before her.