One hundred sixty-seven

One hundred sixty-seven

Before they climbed down the tree, Lord Elphinstone took Senhor Capoeira Capybara’s wallet that he had hooked into an elbow, opened it and felt around in it. He pulled out what looked like a round floppy black piece of cloth.

“He was carrying around that bag of world-jewels from the Night Land, as well as most of the items from your father’s knapsack. But all that’s far to heavy for you. However, putting it in this dimensional hole removes its weight. The jewels especially may have major importance.”

He took the wallet and put it in the hole. Then he reached for Jeanette’s backpack, opened it, and pushed the hole, folded, down to the bottom. He closed it, held it out and tested it. “Not altogether light, but no heavier,” he adjudged. “You have a lot of books.”

Jeanette was still red-eyed, still trembling, but she attempted to smile. “I haven’t had much chance to catch up on my reading,” she said softly.

Then she got up, took the steps over to the tiger, and hugged his legs as if she was trying to deform his armor. “I love you,” her muffled voice came up.

“And I you,” Silvertyger said. “More than words can express.”

He scooped her up as she swung her backpack around. Gad the beetle scrunched down into the space between the pack and her back, which had become her favorite place.

“My strategy, such as it is,” he said while climbing down, “will be to take as many Decision Tree portals as we can. I don’t have much hope of losing the creature, but I’m hoping we can find a technologically advanced world. These deserted worlds are the worst possible places for us.”

Jeanette made a little sound.

“There isn’t any way to detect the portals, are there?”

“Professor Macedoine on Grammar had this silver handkerchief that turned into butterflies, but I don’t think she gave us one of those.”

“Ah yes, I remember.” They reached the ground, and Lord Elphinstone took off, bounding over the thick tangled roots of the forest.

“Otherwise, it’s just at close range.”

They came upon a river, broad and swift, but in a deep bed with steep sides and no break in the canopy overhead. Silvertyger paused for little more than a second, then made a great leap over it, landing sure-footed on the other side. Jeanette let out an eep.

“I’m sorry,” the tiger said.

“No, no,” Jeanette said. “That was just--surprising.”

“Hopefully it will be so to our pursuer.”

Lord Elphinstone ran for nearly an hour at an easy lope, with no more indication of weariness than an increased loudness of his breath. When he stopped running and immediately climbed a tree to rest, Jeanette herself felt relief from a tiredness she had no right to.

“It’s curious,” he said. “All this distance and no path, new or old--no skat from prey--or predator. I wonder what the ecology is here.”

“I wonder if this wood covers the whole world,” Jeanette said.

“I think it might be interesting if you used your necklace to scan for the greatest evil done here.”

“Well--okay,” she said uncomfortably. Something as peaceful as this forest could easily be replaced by a forest fire or a slaughter on a battlefield, or murder or rape--but it might give us something of what this world is.

She touched the jewel--and to her surprise, nothing seemed to happen. Could the place be that peaceful? The power of the jewel, she knew, could go thousands of years in the past. Nothing, in all that time? She was so unnerved that she lifted her finger and pressed again.

There was still nothing--but as she raised her eyes to look farther, she did see something. Six or seven trees away she saw a small animal, white and brown, plump and with short rabbit ears. Crouching between two roots. It had stripes of brightly colored cloth on its body. It was small and at a distance, but it seemed to be writing something on a piece of paper. In the next second it had vanished.

“That’s it?” Jeanette asked aloud. Her finger was still on the center jewel. In all these thousands of years, that was the greatest evil that had ever happened? Heedless in her astonishment, she scrambled down the tree trunk and went over to the place the vision had been. Lord Elphinstone hurried after her.

She stood there. “Well, whatever else that was about, the vanishing part has an explanation,” she said a bit too loudly. At the base of the tree, seemingly in moss or lichen, was the symbol of the Decision Tree.

Jeanette pressed the jewel a third time, and she saw that the little bunny with human hands (making it less cute and a bit more creepy) had buried something in the leaf-mould in front of the symbol. When she released the jewel the leaf mould looked different, but hen she dug down an inch or two into the soft dirt she pulled out a sheet the size of four postage stamps made of flexible gold. There was writing in delicate silver which, unsurprisingly, was in yet another alphabet Jeanette had never seen before. It looked like a long line of the whorls you made when trying to get a pen to write.

She stuffed the sheet in her pocket, and looked up at Lord Elphinstone, who had a restrained scowl on his face. “So shall we?” She asked.

“Of course,” he responded patiently.

“Sorry,” she said, realizing that despite the danger they were in, she had once again acted true to form, just running off. She reached up and took hold of the tiger’s big paw, and stepped forward.

It was dawn on a high hill overlooking a green valley. In the center of the valley was a cluster of the tallest gleaming towers she had ever seen. It made Radiant City--which it resembled in its sleekness--look positively rustic. It was a little hard to judge distances, but the central tower might be as much as a mile high. It gleamed with the red of dawn, and spread out with hundreds of towers and thin lines that were both on the ground and at various levels in the air.

“Now what business would a little bunny rabbit have here?” She asked.

“It’s time to find out,” said Silvertyger.

They made to move forward, but found they were unable to. Though they could talk, they were otherwise paralyzed.


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