The travelers had scarcely time to resister their dismay than the swarm of creatures were upon them. There were square miles of the sliding flat creatures, with new things that could best be call sting-walkers, spider-like but fleshy, attacking them by drilling spikes into the flat things’ armor, upending them and leaving their complicated glistening mouths to writhe. In the middle distance there were the dragon-sized worms, eating and being eaten. The stench was incredible.
It was all happening in the near-total darkness of the Night Land: beyond the glowing slits of orange-red, the brightest thing in the entire landscape was Jeanette Ransom’s dropped smartphone.
There was scarcely any time wasted. Terence, Jeanette, and Senhor Capoeira Capybara had pulled energy weapons out from beyond the sixth wall and were blazing away, even though the armor of the flat things wasn’t easy to penetrate. The feather-bladed pike of O Tse and the longsword of Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone were acting like scythes, clearing swathes down to the black ground.
All this activity served to enrage the creatures, and more were moving towards them, but Dr. Ransom noticed that there was a larger pile-up a couple of hundred feet away. “That lump is probably what caused this pile-on in the first place. Let’s see what got them upset.”
They started making slow progress across the ichor-soaked ground when one of the sting-walkers put a long talon through Ransom’s shoulder. He fell. Instantly Jeanette had her small body over his, and while the others (including the crows) formed a tight group around them, she pressed the healing jewel (or the ‘Mercy’ one and the poison stopped discoloring her father’s flesh and the wound closed. Then they continued towards the pile.
The pile was over, as they say when they had thrown off the creatures, a human, though of what sort was hard to say. It was entangled in a metal armature, and its protective suit and much of its flesh had been eaten away. It wore white gloves, however, so they knew its story. It had a canister strapped to a remaining thigh, and the longsword of Lord Elphinstone cut it free. Senhor Capoeira Capybara took it and the gloves.
“Now if you’ll give me a little space, I’ll try to get us out of here,” Ransom said.
With them standing over him, Ransom took out the case of chalks. After clearing the blood and slime off the hard ground, he drew the black hole, the white aperture, a purple sketch of an orchid, and finally the Decision Tree over all of it. He plunged his arm down, and it vanished.
“Let’s go,” Terence said, and jumped. Making sure they were all in physical contact with each other, the rest followed.
They were in a lovely, deep forest. O Tse looked around in wonder.
Jeanette said breathlessly, “It makes me embarrassed to stand here stinking up the place,” so her father took the special blankets and they cleaned themselves thoroughly.
Dr. Ransom said, “before we go further, I have to apologize. It was my fumblefingers that got us back into that mess. I know, I know, but I had to say it.’
“Ego te Absolvo,” said Thyrsis the crow through Jeanette’s bracelets.”
“Three Hail Mary’s and drop and give me twenty,” added Antithyrsis.
“I hope everything’s all right here,” Jeanette said. “We left with all sorts of horrible stuff being hinted about.”
“Before we go looking for the City--my guess is we’re close to the edge of the forest--let’s take a look at that cylinder,” the capybara said.
“As well as some general inventory,” said Ransom. “We haven’t even examined what the Pilgrims may have given us.”
“As even more well as a snack,” said Senhor Capoeira. “Little Miss Cosmic Principle didn’t have the decency to provide refreshments.”
Jeanette looked at the cylinder. It had a top that unscrewed simply. She pulled out a rolled piece of transparent material. It looked blank, but she could feel that the surface was rough even through her gloves. Her father looked it over. “It could be a hologram. What else is in there?”
She found a tiny thing the size of a watch battery. “Hold it underneath,” said Dr. Ransom, as he held the transparency open in front of him. Holding the battery by its edges, Jeanette moved it under.
A gleaning transparent structure came to life over the transparency. It was lines and arcs and bending sheets whose perspective seemed all wrong. “Beautiful,” said Dr. Ransom. “But I have absolutely no idea what it might be. Map? Schematic? Musical score?”
Jeanette, who had been craning her neck around while trying to hold the light steady, said, “there’s little tiny writing in places.”
“Yes, I see. But it’s of a script--another script--I’ve never seen before. Not Haven , and not Pilgrim. Senhor? Can you help us?”
The capybara put down a sandwich he was assembling, and waddled over. “What would you have me do, Doctor?”
“Hold that light while Jeanette touches some of the text with her bracelet. Watch your throat, my girl.”
“I think that only works with Pilgrim script,” she said, “but I’ll be careful.”
She brushed her hands through the hologram. It enlarged when she brought her hand close to a feature. When she brushed the text, she heard a strange tinkling. Frowning, she did it again, with the same results. But the third time, she heard a silvery voice saying ‘Messier51. Whirlpool Galaxy. Sixty-five empires in twelve principal timelines.’
“A map, then,” Terence said. “And probably a five- or six-dimensional map, projected into three dimensions. But from where to where is a good question.”
“If we got sent to the Night Land after the escape from the Redoubt, it might be where they’ve gone!” Jeanette said excitedly.
“Mm, yes it could. It could be very very important. Let’s keep it safe,” said her father.
She added slowly, “So this might be a gift--a gift from River…”
“Oh my dear girl!” expostulated Senhor Capoeira.
“No, Senhor, my dear girl,” said Dr. Ransom. “We don’t know what we don’t know. Especially out here.”
“You’re right. Sandwiches will be done in a moment.”
After they ate, they plunged through some underbrush for a while until they found a faint trail. Making sure their orchids were well displayed, they spent an afternoon in the green sunlight and green shade of the Avalon Forest until they reached the great City.
It was as beautiful as Jeanette had remembered it, but quiet. Nobody out in the streets, and only a few animals in the great trees threaded through the city.
“Something’s happened,” Jeanette whispered.
They made their way to the gates of the palace, which were unattended as they usually were. Dr. Ransom touched a door, and a spike of silver ran through his brain. The door was opened by a figure he remembered as Magister Tanbark Cyrrh. His deer-face and antlers rose as he said, “Dr. Ransom and young Jeanette! A pleasant surprise!”
“Have...we come at a bad time?” Terence asked.
“The king and a great assemblage of paladins are on an expedition deep into the Wombflash Forest, perhaps as far as the Sinking Sea. We await his return.”
The Magister let them in, shaking hands heartily with Lord Elphinstone and being introduced to O Tse.
“You have suffered a wound to your shoulder that was hastily healed,” he said to Dr. Ransom, and Ransom bared his shoulder and let the Magister run his hands over it. “Expertly but not completely done. There.”
There was a noise like a big wind in the branches of the trees. They all hurried to the palace doors.
Up the main boulevard came a great procession. Led by snow-white winged horses. Just behind it was a figure lying on a tapestry.
“He is dead then,” the Magister said solemnly.