Jeanette could feel the moist heat of the thing’s breath on her face, She couldn’t move, she couldn’t cry out, and the creature was making very little noise itself. There was nothing she could do. Her efforts to buck out of the bed were stymied by the heavy body’s pressure on top of her.
There was recognition in its eyes: it knew who she was, and was going to tear her apart along the way to killing her. She wasn’t afraid: she had just died and come back from the afterlife for the second time, but she steeled herself for the pain.
The thing dragged its claws up her arm, ribboning her nightshirt and digging deep into her flesh. She screamed in her throat. The talons of the lower limbs speared into her legs.
Then there was a whirring sound, and a hard impact above her. She felt the thing stiffen and arch its back. It rocked from one side to another and back again, but all without removing its paw from her mouth.
She was pulled down off the bed, and she hit the hard floor with her shoulder at a bad angle, and felt sparks roll down her arm. There was a series of whinings and grindings and four or five bronze shafts with spring-loaded curved blades came between her face and the creature’s. One of the crescents dig deep into a yellow eye.
She pushed herself with her feet, and got partially out from under the black thing, and saw that on top of it was a complicated clockwork robot. More arms with spears were rising from its back, and it was glowing with a yellow light.
That was when the door to her room exploded and a humanoid tiger in mirror armor and a weasel-bear with a pike--Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone and O Tse-- were in the room, swinging and thrusting.
She managed to say hoarsely, “The black thing…” and then began coughing. Lord Elphinstone, within the space of one swordstroke, bent down and separated the her from the creature and the robot. The robot disengaged and sprang back as well, reconfiguring itself--and getting larger as it did so--until Jeanette could recognize it as a mechanical cat--a lynx.
Silvertyger lopped off a limb and sent it flying, then buried his sword in the bunched-up neck. O Tse stood astride the monster and brought his pike down into the body center. Surges of blazing energy went down the pole as the Weasel-Bear worked it back and forth. Thick fluid pulsed out of the body, but it kept moving. It seemed that the neck was trying to reconnect to the body, and even the separated arm, though its shape was softening, still moved. Lord Elphinstone threw his head back, and let out with an ear-splitting roar.
In an instant, the room was filled with people. There was no armor among them, but all were richly dressed. (One woman was dressed in a simple white robe and had a towel wrapped around her head.) They all, in well-tuned movements, formed a circle around the still-moving mess, color changes moving through the various costumes. Burbling excrescenses ran along the length of the thing, It shrunk, but still retained its integrity.
Lord Elphinstone had moved over to Jeanette, and was stanching the blood of her wounds with a torn piece of bedspread. “This damn thing seems no easier to kill than the last time.” Jeanette looked around the periphery beyond the circle of mages, and saw that her backpack had been torn to pieces and the contents strewn about. The books weren’t torn up, nor the phials opened. But she got up, and with the tiger in tow, limped slowly to stand before something all by itself: the small blood-red world jewel. It rested in a charred and cracked circle of the stone floor.
Oberon arrived, with her father and the others behind him. Dr. Ransom came up to Jeanette, clearly wanted to touch her wounds (some of which were darkening the cloth, but instead just stood close. Oberon followed Jeanette’s line of sight, bent down with a hand over the jewel, then likewise thought the better of touching it. “Perhaps you should do it, my dear,” he said. Dr. Ransom frowned at that, but said nothing.
Jeanette hesitated, then bent down and picked up the jewel without anything happening. Oberon then guided her to the circle and they both joined it. The clockwork lynx, grown still larger, was sitting just outside the circle, it shifting colors matching those of the linked mages.
The creature was now a little pitted and bulging sphere, not much bigger than a baseball, suspended in the center. With Oberon touching one shoulder and a mage in crimson and gold pajamas the other, Jeanette held up the jewel in two cupped hands toward the pulsating ball.
“Beat it,” she said.
The sphere vanished with a clap of thunder so loud it should have shook the palace and the forest around it for miles. The circle almost broke as the mages, except for Jeanette, cringed, but it held. And when they opened their eyes fully, it was gone, every drip of it.
The clockwork lynx walked over to Jeanette’s side, rubbed her leg, and clicked and whirred as she petted it.
“I was intending to talk to you about what these world-jewels are, your Majesty.” Jeanette said, but ‘Majesty’ came out as a yawn.
The circle of mages vanished as quickly as they had come. Oberon said, “we have a great deal to discuss, but the morning might be the best time to do it. Unless, of course, you don’t think you can get to sleep.”
“Quite the--” she yawned mightily, “--opposite.”
“ Good, then,” Oberon bowed before her. “Get as much mileage out of the bed as you can, Jeanette.”
Jeanette sleepily turned to the bad as the others left. She might have still been scared, or in pain, but as it turns out, she was neither. It was Avalon, after all. She climbed in, noticing that the world-jewel was so thorough that not even the smell of the creature remained.
She decided to sleep with the world-jewel under her pillow. Th clockwork lynx jumped up on the night table and began to fold itself up. Jeanette looked at the geared shape as sleep rapidly took her, and she conducted both parts of a conversation she wished she could have:
“Goodnight, Diotima. Thank you very much for the clockwork lynx.”
“Any time, my dear. Glad it proved useful.”
“I haven’t seen you in a while. What have you been up to?”
“Oh this and that, here and there. Yourself?”
“The *yawn* same…”
The morning saw them in a familiar meeting room, with a table laden with an immense breakfast. King Oberon was looking at the red world-jewel, with Terence’s bag full of them near at hand. Jeanette had just finished telling the story of the white rabbit and the Queen of Hearts giving her the jewel of her world.
“I’ve only had limited acquaintance with world jewels, and here’s a whole bag of them,” Oberon said. “Many think them entirely fanciful, though no one disputes the theoretical possibility. There is the story of the Giant of the Shoals of Light, who sits like a dragon on a hoard of the jewels, somewhere at the end of the world. But what I suspect happened with this bag is that these are the worlds that the Redoubt have managed to save from Deep Chaos. Yours is different because it is unsealed and bound to you. It might be that it was that which drew the Deep Chaos creature to you. But it’s powerful enough to take that chance.”
“I’ll say. That was very cool. WHAM!” Jeanette said.
“Now let’s take a look at that map of yours,” said the king.
It was spread out, and the table itself provided the illumination to send the image up in the air in great size. “From what you’ve said, I think the courier may have been trying to preserve the location of where the forces of the Redoubt are regrouping. The script and language is of a venerable race called, with no little irony, the Authorized Personnel. Although I don’t see any special markings on it. It’s a beautiful five dimensional map, though, and I think it was, mm, borrowed from Personnel. You can scroll not only in spatial dimensions, but in temporal dimensions. Very rare to see one.” Oberon moved his arm, and the lines and areas rotated and changed. He swiped in a different way, and the symbols started readjusting themselves.
Then the image vanished. Oberon frowned. He swiped again, and it reappeared. He repeated it with the same results.
Senhor Capoeira Capybara said laconically, “Just what I’ve always wanted: a map of the end of the world.”