One hundred seventy-six

One hundred seventy-six

“This is a mistake,” Jeanette said. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Let’s hold off on that for a minute,” said Jack. “We paid good money for access to this.”

“Don’t you feel it?” Jeanette said.

“No, nothing.”

“But look at your gloves.”

He held them up. They were glowing the same way that hers were.

“I don’t use them the way you do.” He started to walk away, through the lush garden towards the house. She hurried after him, loading anger on top of her near panic.

The Last Horizon house was low and Japanese in style, except their were splashes--like, literal splashes--of color here and there, on the walls and posts. Hippie Japanese, maybe. There was gravel and flat stones for walking on, and the overarching trees--willows--and masses of flowers prevented any long line of sight. If this was a pocket universe, there probably weren’t any.

Everything looked serene and perfectly kept up, but she had gotten used to places that maintained themselves. But she could feel it as distinctly as she could feel temperature: something old. Something waiting. Something aware of her and Jack.

Jack walked up the steps onto the porch that went around the building, slid open a panel that might be paper, and walked in. She touched her necklace and turned on her magic shield, which didn’t make the feeling go away. It wasn’t quite so Japanese inside--there were low armchairs and a side table for each of them, and instead of mats there was an amazing patterned rug with a circular design.

The place smelled like food, though, which was incredibly distracting. Out side of the one Skittle, she hadn’t eaten in--she had to think back--Like three or four universes ago. She was so hungry. It was creepy in concept, maybe designed to put them off guard.

“Okay, I still don’t see or hear anything strange. Look, You may be sensitive to something I’m just not. But this place is as secure as it gets, and we came here by my phasing abilities, and not by the avenues you said the thing followed you by,” Jack said. He was building up a head of mad, and when he got mad, Jeanette knew now, both of them got stupid.

But something was here.

“Let’s go check out the food,” Jack said. “I’ve gotten a lot better since the time you tortured me with a banana split, but I still could eat something the size of your friend the capybara.”

They walked down the color-splashed hallway. Jeanette could feel Gad poking her head out to look around. “This is another pretty place,” the beetle said through her bracelets. “You have taken me to so many pretty places, Jeanette.”

“I’m glad it pleases you, Gad,” she said softly.

The air was getting warmer, more fragrant , and moister. The corridor emptied up into an open area which, despite the lack of most of the tools and things she was familiar with, was almost certainly the kitchen. There were a number of cabinets with glass fronts, and very big dishes. And there was a pot that was most definitely cooking something, and it smelled excellent.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take some,” Jack said. He started opening cabinet doors and found a large shallow plate, and another door where he found a ladle with a curiously bent grip. He went over to the pot, sniffed appreciatively, and spooned it into the bowl. He went over to one of the glass doors and opened it up.

Jeanette screamed.

Jack whirled in fury and said “WHAT?”

"It was in the steam,” she squeaked. “A shape…”

But Jack wasn’t listening. He was looking at his hand. He made a couple of odd hand gestures, then dropped it to his side. He now looked as scared as Jeanette felt.

“When you--when you screamed,” he stammered, “I automatically tried to phase. I couldn’t. And I can’t now.”

It wasn’t just fright: it was that all her companions, her brave, strong, smart companions were dead now. It had been easy to be brave, even foolhardy, leaning on them. All her losses came down on her in that moment, and she began to cry. Really cry.

“Stop it,” Jack said.

But she couldn’t.

She felt Jack’s hands on her face--but she opened her eyes, and Jack was halfway across the kitchen. She started throwing her head from side to side and flapping her arms like she had done when she was five, bawling and shouting NO NO NO NO NO--

--and they were in another room, like the first one but with low reddish lighting. She was sitting in a low soft armchair, and there was a side table like before, and on the table was a bowl of stew and a triangle of bread next to it, and a spoon. Jack was across the room, sitting in another chair, similarly supplied.

Before they could get up, or shout, or say anything, a cascade of mist came down from the ceiling between them. It was warm, and may have been steam. Something walked into the column, slender, long armed, and round-headed.

I beg your pardon, a voice whispered inside Jeanette’s ear, very soft and tiny. But I am so used to walking around unbodied that I forget all about it. You are of the” and there was a strange mixed-up whisper. An arm extended out of the column, and Jeanette could feel a touch on her glove.

“Toons. Champions of the Imagination. Exiles,” Jeanette said hoarsely from all the yelling she had done.

Toons is pleasant. I like that. I was there, you know.

“There?” Jeanette said.

At the--another confusion of whispers--where you were bested and thrown. It was terrible. I could do nothing. I ran when you were cast. I ran here and hid. I am so sorry.

Jeanette could barely speak the words. “Who--are you?”

Nobody important, then or now. 

“I--I’m pursued by a thing of Deep Chaos.” She said.

This place will not keep it out. I’m afraid nothing will.

Jeanette gave out a small cry as something went through her. Across the room, Jack made a yelp.

You must fight, and you must win. 

“I--” Jeanette wanted to say she couldn’t, that she was alone and empty and not brave, but she wasn’t able to say even that.

Just as you must eat your stew and your bread.

The steam stopped flowing down, and spread out over the floor.

Jack said, “I can phase again.” And he vanished and reappeared. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“After we eat,”  Jeanette said.


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