After the explosion there was a mad dash for the boulder with the Decision Tree mark on it. With everyone sure to be in contact with everyone else, Grandmère Hutan put her white-gloved hand on the symbol as the shadow of another huge pillar descended on them.

Then they were through, in the sullen darkness of the Night Land, and the shock and horror ran through them.

It was almost too much for Jeanette to believe, and definitely too much for her to bear. All of them, dead. Strong, proud, funny, magnificent--Jeanette realized how much of her had become Ngozi Makena Odile. It was all “Now she’s going to do that” and “Now I get to see how she pulls that off”--and now that was gone, and there was just a smashed and bloody mess, along with her cabin mates and Diotima Urantia Gearheart--and none of the things that had borne her up were true any more--and all the pillars and walls inside her were falling to pieces. What was she going to do? How could she do anything without all that?

Her father, who was not near her, said in a voice she never wanted to hear again, “It--it isn’t--”

Senhor Capoeira Capybara said almost savagely, “Stop. Just stop. This is no time for impossible optimism. We all saw what happened, and weaving one thin thread out of it does absolutely nobody any good.”

“I’m sorry,” her father said.

“We’re not necessarily safe here,” said Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone. “I will stand watch.”

That, of course, made sense. If anything, it should be more dangerous on this side of the dimensional gateway than the other. If this was the Night Land, this is the heart of the danger, and the important thing was to find the Last Redoubt, all the while looking for evil forces.

But she couldn’t move.

Every time she thought of something or someone--every time she came up with a ‘should’ or an ‘after all’--she just slid back down into her pit. She was too heartsick to be afraid.

It may have even been more than a day when Silvertyger came to a small rise above them. “I hear the sounds of a battle.” At that, father and son, capybara, orangutan, and crows stirred themselves, and followed.

What they came upon was a large furry creature, partially armored, fighting a sea of what looked like armored scales. They were humped low, and almost looked like pard of the landscape, but when they rose up, sometimes by climbing over each other, sharp mouth parts and tentacles emerged. The single fighter resembled a weasel, but a weasel as big as a bear, and was swinging a heavy pike with an axe-blade. He was wearing white gloves, so there was no question as to what to do.

Between Lord Elphinstone and the weasel-bear there wasn’t all that much to do, even though the flat things were human-sized and numbered in the hundreds. Still, the projectile weapons Capoeira, Grandmère Hutan, and Dr. Ransom pulled from beyond the sixth wall caused black chips and green-black blood to fly.

When the slaughter was done, they stood amid the stench and asked the creature his (or her) name. “O Tse am I, and I see you are of my kindred. I set out with a company of a hundred ninety companions to find the Redoubt and join the struggle. I am the only one left.”

By unspoken agreement they moved away from the reek, and found stones on which to sit. O Tse asked, “Are you from the Redoubt?”

Capoeira said, “We seek it the same as you. Have you been here long? We’re very newly arrived.”

“The equivalent of many days, no more.” As he sat, he groomed himself, and showed that depending on which way his fur was stroked, it changed from silver to black. He established a striped pattern on his chest and made his face silver. He held up a small crystal phial that had a translucent flower petal that moved as if it were in liquid, and said, “This was given to me by the one who recruited me, and told me of my true fate. She died early on in our pilgrimage, and I continue to follow it. But I have traveled a long time in this black land and seem to have come no closer.”

Grandmère spoke. “We’ll travel with you, if you’ll let us.” The weasel-bear nodded, and they arose.

Jeanette had said nothing. What had run through her head was another one who’ll die, but she got angry at herself that that was simply sick. It was stronger that O Tse was a figure that would draw her further away from Ngozi’s memory, and that that was a dishonor--but this was a living breathing person, which beat out a phantom construct of her own fretting.

She noticed that what at first seemed to be a spear-point and an axe blade on the pike was in fact an array of feathers that were evidently as strong as steel, but that could be reshaped with the touch of a hand. She wondered if O Tse came from a magic world or one with a strange technology.

They walked through the darkness, and O Tse began to talk. “I have a memory of what I had been: I was a god, though a minor one, in a miraculous land. It was a city a thousand miles from east to west, and a thousand miles from north to south, and called thereby the Million City. The inhabitants did not look like me, but I danced their legendary battles and their lessons of wisdom, and was a figure of fun, pathos or terror as the story required--but always loved.”

“Then the Exile came, and when my fall was finished, I was a soldier like myriads of others in a dreadful world of war and cruelty. All the talk and all the songs were of sun and peace, but there was nothing but rain and war. But I thought Million City was just a dream, until a strange female animal--a crane with wings of fire, with the name of Hant’manou--told me the truth. We went from world to world, gathering others, traveling by the Doors of the Decision Tree, seeking this place.”

The very last thing Jeanette wanted to hear was the stories of her friends told over again, so she tuned them out as she walked. She had come up out of her pit enough that she wondered now whether Jennifer Random Transcendent had simply lied to her about winning and everything turning out all right, wanting to meet them in their last moments of happiness--that sounded bitterly about right--or if her visit had somehow turned her ‘favorite book’ all wrong. She’d read enough time travel stories to think that might be it.

Of course, the--what had Senhor Capoeira called it? Impossible optimism?--might simply be that it wasn’t over yet, and that this was the dark part of the  book that you particularly loved because the cool ending made it all worthwhile?

Right now, that sounded like the worst of the three. Sorry, Dada, but fuck that.

The crows came back to the group at great speed. “I know this might be hard, but find a place to hide--quickly,” Thyrsis said.

She raised her voice for the first time, and everybody did what they could.

There was a huge scraping noise, and from behind her pathetic rock, she could see a glistening slimy snake about three stories high sliding along the black landscape. She cowered as best she could.

The snake stopped, turned its head, and with dripping filmy phosphorescent eyes, stared directly at her.


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