The portal wasn’t instantaneous, and it wasn’t exactly pleasant. Jeanette had a pain deep inside her ears, and there was a pain in her chest; her legs trembled and there were pins and needles up and down her body.
They came through, with a change that made Jeanette gasp. It was a lot colder and the air was thin but clean. Their attention was immediately drawn to the sky, which was a roiling turbulence without stars or lights, but somehow still made the ground visible.
This was it: Deep Chaos, from horizon to horizon. It had a beauty to it, but they knew this was the danger that had stalked their lives, now in full power.
They were hovering at the edge of an immense bowl that might have been a crater, except for its shallowness. There was a shimmering sphere at the center of it, and they made for it immediately, not wanting to be naked under that sky for any longer than was necessary.
Jeanette thought she saw that the ground, a jumble of dark and light stone, was made up completely of Decision Tree signs. Once she came to that conclusion, she couldn’t un-see it: this must be Portal Central, or at least one of them.
O Tse brought the flying platform down within a couple of feet of the dome. It was a different sort of barrier from the ones they’d encountered up until now: while most shields had been either subtle distortions of the air or dull opacity, this one sparkled and shifted colors, and had a depth to it.It looked, Jeanette thought, more like a celebration than a defense, and that lifted her spirits.
Still, even though it was four or five stories high, it was too small to contain much of the toon force.
Telling herself not to start borrowing trouble, she walked right up to the barrier. She dropped her gun, which vanished in the usual way. She put her white-gloved hand on the field, and was surprised and delighted, amid an increase in sparkling turbulence, to see English letters form: Jeanette Ransom. Then there was a little more, and underneath it was +1, which made her reach up with the other hand and tough Gad the beetle on her shoulder.
She walked through, and it didn’t have any thickness at all. Inside it was something like a town square, milling with people of many sizes and many species, a few hundred of them. There weren’t any buildings, but there were a number of fountains, and some small shapes that were mostly obscured by the crowd.
Everyone seemed calm, and nobody paid any special interest, except for one towering thin figure, slender, with long straight hair, pale, and wearing beautiful floating delicate robes. She (well, it could be a he, because you never knew) was looking with calm interest at Jeanette, and walked toward her.
“Hello,” the figure said, in a rich voice that reminded Jeanette of the Queen of Hearts. “You’re Jeanette Ransom, and this is Gad?’
“Pleased to meet you,” the beetle said, not through Jeanette’s bracelets but directly.
“You may call me Rhea. I’m the commander of this installation.” Gad flew from Jeanette’s shoulder to hers. “You, Jeanette, have died twice after Exile--and all of you have been touched by Change. You have the marks of the Night Land on you, and you have met and spoken with the Pilgrims. Quite a crew,” she finished with a smile that lit up her face.
“I’ve only died once--I-I think,” Jeanette said, not really wanting to contradict her.
Rhea merely bowed her head. “You’re also the first Exiles in many centuries to come to us via these portals. It’s good to know that this small contingent is of some use.”
“We were wondering about that…” Senhor Capoeira Capybara said.
“This isn’t the last tiny remnants of a once proud force, Senhor Capybara,” Rhea said with a lilt in her voice. “Behold!”
There weren’t many people Jeanette knew who could bring off a ‘behold!’, but she brushed her hand overhead with such grace that she just looked.
The sky overhead, which had been visible but had lost some of its menace behind the shield, was now dusted with a Milky Way of steady bright stars against the turbulence. “Our fleet is still there, and has forced back the advances of Deep Chaos for a long age now. We have had a standoff for all this time, which is remarkable since it is a universal principle and we are just a bunch of imaginary friends.”
Rhea looked at Jeanette again, calmly but intensely. She raised a long and elegant hand, and Gad hopped onto it. She extended her hand to Jeanette, and Gad settled back on Jeanette’s shoulder.
“Given that, time is not in our favor. Since the main gate across the Wild Gate to Clerestory has been closed, we have had few of our kind join us--”
“We crossed that Gate and reached Clerestory, but were driven back,” Lord Elphinstone said.
“Indeed?” It was even harder to do an ‘Indeed?’, But Jeanette didn’t mind at all. “That’s not without importance. You may in fact contribute to breaking the deadlock--if we can get you to the main fleet. That won’t be easy.”
Jeanette said, “We’d love to be able to do that, my lady, but--”
“--but you don’t see how? Neither do I. But humans don’t walk out of the Civitate Rhei without consequences. That I do know.”
Jeanette looked at her. Who was she really? Not a low level commander, she’d bet. Not bringing off a ‘Behold’ and an ‘Indeed,’ nope nope nope.
There was a sigh that wafted through the air, that was almost a voice saying something. At the same time, one--two--of the fountains began to flow ruby red.
“Your arrival hasn’t gone unnoticed,” Rhea said. “We are under attack.”
Nobody rushed, but the milling about became orderly and purposeful. Cat-people dipped their hands in the fountains, and ram’s horned burly men stood at waist-high stones.
Outside the shield, pillars of light as wide as buildings poured into the sky, and even bigger pits opened up in the rocky ground. The sky became to bright to look at comfortably, and after a short while, other broad beams began to come back down. Jeanette moved closer to Lord Elphinstone.
While barrage met barrage, Rhea said, as casually as her previous conversation had been, “There is something bigger behind this.” A tall white staff appeared in her hand, and around them, all the fountains began to pour blood.
Then a complex beam that was like three spirals dancing came down from the sky and burst into sparks.
“The shield is down,” Rhea said coolly, and raised her staff.