Jeanette awoke with a jump to a sound near her. Her first thought was that she had no retreat and her movement was badly limited by the little crevice she had spent the last part of the night in.
The sound was wings, and her second thought was that she wasn’t carrion--not yet, anyway. She thrashed her arms before even opening her eyes. This didn’t make the birds fly away, which was a bad sign, and she felt the birds getting closer.
Finally completely awake (if confused), she saw that there were two black crows, and one of them was poking its beak at the jewelry she had tucked in her waistband. Sparklies, she thought.
Then the other crow said, “SPEAK.”
She then thought that her life might just possibly not be over.
The other crow had pulled the bracelet out. It let it drop, then got closer and tapped the back of her hand. Getting the hint, she slipped the bracelet on, then the other one, and then slipped the necklace on over her head. She paused for a second, and both crows tilted their heads at her. “What?” She said.
The second crow went to her bracelet and poked the jangly things with its beak. She saw that the chains seemed to have caps at the end. The mantis had just had the chains jangle--but then the mantis had no fingers. There were three on each bracelet, and she put them on her fingers. “Like this?”
Evidently not: the crow started to pull at one. So Jeanette started trying various combinations on the fingers.
Suddenly the other crow said, “Ah! That’s more like it,” and the other said, “Finally!”
“Hello,” Jeanette said. “Are you the crow that I talked to before--in the train?”
“I am indeed. You may call me Thyrsis.”
“And you may call me Antithyrsis,” said the other. “We owe you a debt we can’t repay for giving us our opportunity for revenge--but, poor child, why are you out in the forest and all alone?”
Jeanette swallowed, and began to tear up despite her best efforts. “We saved--we rescued my father from the fortress, and were getting ready to leave on this ghost train, and--a-and I got scared of the train, because I thought that meant that we were dying, and I ran away. And here I am.”
“The Last Train Out. Ah,” said Thyrsis.
“I’m happy to see you and not to be alone, but--is this Last Train Out dying? Will I ever see my father again?”
“Well,” began Thyrsis slowly, and Jeanette burst into tears, “I knew it! I knew it! He’s dead! He’s dead!”
Antithyrsis pecked at Thyrsis, “You idiot. You academic overthinking idiot!” The second crow hopped up close to Jeanette’s face. “The actual answers are ‘No’ and ‘Yes,’ little Yahoo girl. The first answer has an asterisk, which shouldn’t bother anyone except this dithering fool here.”
“I don’t understand,” Jeanette said slowly, hope creeping back into her.
“Think of it as a mail train,” Antithyrsis said. “It takes paying passengers to all sorts of destinations--but it also has stops where it delivers souls in need of progress to their appropriate recipients. Bit of a sideline.”
“But your second question is, in its fullness, can we help you see your father again? And the answer to that is maybe. As my annoying counterpart has said, we owe you a debt we cannot repay, and so will do everything we can to hep you.”
“Thank you,” Jeanette said.
“But on the other hand, we really are just crows. Not a whole lot of miraculous resources at our disposal.”
“That is not to say that they don’t exist,” added Antithyrsis. “It depends on a number of things.”
They paused, and despite everything, and her utter misery and being delivered from it by them, Jeanette began to get a little impatient.
“It’s best we tell you the whole story--in as succinct a manner as possible, I assure you,” said Thyrsis.
“This fortress was once called Haven, and it was not the blackened husk you saw, but a towering gleaming palace shining sun-silver in the day and moon-silver at night. The inhabitants resembled you a great deal, only not quite so pudgy. And we crows were their messengers and observers, hitching rides on the network of trains to the worlds of cosmic infinity, bring information and taking invitations to this place of rest and joy.”
“The disaster occurred--did the mantis tell you of the thing their god-emperor now entertains?”
“She showed us,” Jeanette said.
“Did she. Well, the thing was discovered by one of the greatest among us, and would have destroyed all of Haven and sped out into myriads of other worlds, had they not melted and forged the palace into a shrunken black prison for the thing. Our partners fled, and so did we, ashamed of our folly, and scattered into the everywhere. All this was a long long time ago. Then--”
Antithyrsis asked, “Did the mantis also tell you the story of the coming of the bugs?”
“Then we don’t need to go over that. The relevant part is that Haven still housed a lot of the makers’ technology, and the bugs were smart enough to use it to set themselves up in power. But then the most powerful of them--their ‘emperor-God’--broke the seal on the forbidden chamber, and things turned into a nightmare.”
“To the point, little Yahoo--” Thyrsis began.
“My name’s Jeanette.”
“To be sure. My apologies. But the jewelry you’re wearing is of Haven manufacture. We don’t know its full powers--communicating with us is one of its lesser functions, though one we’re familiar with.”
Antithyrsis edged in front. ‘The Last Train Out is also the work of Haven. We can’t summon it or control it in any way. But that is not to say that there might not be something in the fortress that can.”
Jeanette was now fully awake and out of her doldrums. But she was feeling very similar to the way she felt when Senhor Capoeira Capybara (and his box of rats) had been in their house selling Dada and her on this great interdimensional adventure.
She looked at the crows. “So if we were to just sort of waltz into the heavily guarded Bug Fortress and start to rummage around a bit--”
“--protected by your jewelry all the time, yes--”
“We might find something, not sure what, which would enable me to maybe come into contact with the Last Train Out and maybe follow and maybe catch up with my father--”
“--While at the same time maybe perhaps finding something that would enable you to crush the bugs for once and for all?”
Thyrsis said, “That could be part of it, of course, yes.”
She looked at the two crows. She thought of her father--and Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone--Grandmère Hutan--and the broken city ruled by vampire pteranodons.
She got up and started to walk away.
“You coming?” She asked, and the crows alit, one on each of her shoulders.