“Track her, Jack!” shouted Jillian to the bird. It perched on the daemon‘s shoulder, ruffling its wings with agitation as they climbed into what was arguably the sky. The gwiffon had assumed Rusty‘s pointy-eared form as soon as he climbed on top of it, merging them both into one hideous yellow beast. Jack remained a little brown snipe. Flower dreams were endlessly weird.
“Instruct me! I‘m not a ranger!” chirped the Snipe.
Swimmy-looking green towers slid downward, as the stack gained altitude. Wanda‘s slender arms hugged Jillian‘s waist tightly.
Jillian kept forgetting herself in the dreams....who she was, what she was trying to do here. But yes, she certainly was a ranger, now that she‘d been reminded of that fact. She could track a fleeing prisoner. Her instincts gave her clarity. “She‘ll be leaving the city!” she said forcefully. “The city has four gates.”
“Main gate,” said Wanda into her ear.
“Which one leads to the Garden?” tweeted the Jack-bird.
Jillian nodded, pointing her sword. “Main gate,” she confirmed. “Into the smoke.”
Coughing felt like getting punched in the back of the head, and it turned her whole upper body into a quivering block of putty. So Jillian tried not to. Beams of sunlight lit up the hazy way ahead. Sometimes the smoke looked like smoke, other times it was swirling snow or flower petals tickling her face. The ground was only a memory from here.
“Think we‘re too high!” she shouted.
“Clearly,” said the Snipe.
“Let‘s try and get under the sm–” Jillian broke into a coughing fit as petals flew into her mouth. Her body wobbled like a steel spring. “Smoke.”
The faceless gwiffon responded to her order to dive, but it wasn‘t flying right. There was some sideslip. Wanda hung on behind her. The yellow daemon also seemed to be having trouble, drifting away and yawing left. Did gwiffons dream, too? That would be bad news, if so.
They flew on, descending, catching only a couple of glimpses of green brick pavement. Then suddenly they broke into a column of clear air, and Jillian could see all the way to the main gate.
It was wide open. The portcullis was beginning to rise.
“There!” chirped Jack.
A flower grew on the bricks before the gate. No...a lizard stood there. On all fours, hopping around impatiently. A lizard/flower thing...she couldn‘t resolve it quite. But that was certainly Olive.
And behind it, beyond the gates, stood an army of small soldiers, waiting to enter the city.
“Shoot it!” shouted Jillian to the daemon, which now had drifted quite far away and dropped into a steeper dive than was probably safe. Jillian could barely see the Jack-bird flapping frantically on its shoulders. “Shoot the lizard!”
“Peep?” came the daemon‘s voice on the wind. It flapped its stubby arms, refusing the order, and stared at the lizard. Its mouth hung agape. It drooled.
“He doesn‘t see her as you do!” shouted the bird in frustration. “You don‘t...you don‘t even want to know what he sees!”
The portcullis was nearly at waist height. They would never get there in time to stop her from leaving. Jillian‘s eyes bulged, and she held back a scream. “Make him, Foolamancer! Cast on him!”
A little shower of magical sparks lit up the yellow daemon‘s shoulders, and it suddenly turned. It‘s black-tipped ears flattened back fiercely. The flower/lizard thing was now squirming to fit under the rising gate, but the daemon charged.
“Peeeep at...you!” it cried.
The lizard-flower-prey turned and snarled at the approaching beast, just in time to take a blast of jagged light full in the face.
Another cloud of petal-smoke got in her way, and Jillian couldn‘t help breathing it in. It was so chokey-sweet. It tasted like warm sunshine. Felt good. Losing her visual anchor of the city, she began to forget where she was and what she was doing up there again. Did she have any wine with her?
No...she was on the hunt.
Yeah. Yeah! Right, she remembered. Pretty sure that Rusty‘d nailed the target. The prey was down, at least for a few moments. That army outside...was that a dream? Or real? They had to get down there and finish her off.
The gwiffons seemed to respond to the order before she gave it, as both of them started plummeting from the sky.
“No, keep flying...” she muttered, trying to give it the force of an order. “Forward! To the gate.”
“Help!” came a faint call from the Jack-bird. The yellow daemon rolled sickeningly away and fell out of sight, as the landscape turned. Jillian‘s own gwiffon had begun a bad spin.
She grabbed a fistful of its rubbery neck and tried to will it to level out.
It did not. The green bricks of the city‘s main thoroughfare spun up to greet them.
For reasons that she would wonder about for a long time, Jillian threw her sword away. In the seconds before crashing, she turned around in the saddle and looked at the Wanda-idol. The Croakamancer‘s eyes were the haunting, painted ones of the Dollamancer‘s mannequin. Jillian reached out, put her arms around Lady Firebaugh, and clutched her close for impact.
The smoke at ground level was thick. They‘d crashed in the street, but neither Jillian nor Wanda were incapacitated, just banged up. Not the first time. Or the first time today...
The gwiffon had taken most of the fall damage and had croaked from it...or maybe it had been overcome by the smoke. Was that what statue-Betsy tried to say? That she couldn‘t protect the mounts?
Didn‘t matter now.
It was close to “nothing matters” time, in fact. Jillian was wounded, and deep in the visions of flowers. She could see in directions that only existed in dreams. If Wanda hadn‘t pulled her to her feet, she‘d be lying comfortably in nothingness.
“What are you doing! Why are you sitting there! Attack!”
The voice was not Wanda‘s. Nor the bald jester‘s. It was Olive Branch, lost somewhere in the smoke and petals. She sounded panicked and furious.
“Attack this city now!!”
Jillian looked at the intersecting planes where the other end of her body met the world. The ground. Yes. Must be the ground. Where was Three-Edged? Where was Jack?
“Come,” said dream-Wanda, still lovely but not whole. Wounded from the fall. She dragged a bent leg, hopping along. Her shoulder was all wrong, too.
Jillian had serious trouble walking, herself. What was it this time, a knee? Yeah. She could feel no pain, though. The buds washed it all away. She just couldn‘t move very well. In the smoke, she could not tell direction, but following Wanda was doable. They were getting closer to the prey. Closer to the yelling voice.
“Follow my orders! Attack! Rescue me!”
Suddenly there was a bright vertical slit in the fog. The main gate. The prey was squirming there, struggling. The portcullis was going up again.
Beyond, in the sunlight, stood an army of tiny people in elaborate dress. Hoop skirts and pointed shoes. Elaborate hats and hairstyles. But they were an army, Jillian was sure of that.
With the prey in sight, she cast about for her sword. It was nowhere.
The portcullis lifted above the lizard‘s head, and it was free. Jillian charged as best she could, but there was no way she could close this much ground in time.
The flower/lizard could see that, too. It turned around as if to taunt her, but it looked past Jillian‘s shoulder.
“I never loved you, Wanda,” it said. “Just...so you know that.”
Jillian limped forward, actually getting worse at moving as she went on. Forward became a series of tricks, bad choices and missteps. Still, the prey was there. It had stopped. If she could reach it, she‘d fight it weaponless.
“This is your city,” said Wanda.
“Yes it is! And–” snapped the lizard.
“...Chief Warlady,” continued Wanda. “Close the portcullis.”
What happened in Jillian‘s mind in that moment was difficult to put together later. In the thick smoke and white sunlight, in the space and time folds she limped her way through, there was a turn and a click. She remembered herself. Chief Warlady. This was Faq‘s city. The outer walls were loaded with anti-siege emplacements–Dirtamancy traps–of which the portcullis was one. It was not destroyed by the enemy; it had only been lifted up by an escaping prisoner.
She had only the barest instant of clarity, in the middle of madness. But Jillian was a creature of reflex. A warrior only needs an instant to focus her will.
Her prey was not so fast, not so perfectly instinctual. It only had time to gasp. It had barely shifted its weight to flee when the gate came crashing down on it.
The flower-lizard twitched, and lay still. Then its lizard aspect melted away, and it became all flower. A single white lily.
Bells rang out in the city. Outside, the great army of tiny soldiers did not disappear, but stirred to life. Jillian willed the gates to close, but after they had slammed shut, she thought she could hear the soldiers singing: "Ding, dong" ...something. Or was it the bells?
They were still out there, somehow. Had the side not fallen? Had the–
But she was already losing her grasp on events. The smoke was so thick.
Wanda caught up to her, taking her hand. The ringing sounds became an ocean, and Jillian‘s footing slipped. “I need to sleep now,” she said, doing something that might have been sitting or lying on the ground.
“I know,” said Wanda, drawing closer to her. The vision of Lady Firebaugh smiled, before dissipating into a pale mist.
Jillian collapsed inward. She fell into a reflection of herself on the surface of a pool of herself. In a titanic splash of mind, she disrupted everything she was. Somewhere in the droplets that sprayed out, a tiny bald jester was shaking his fist and shouting into space.
“If they attack the city, we‘re doomed!”
But she did not know what words meant.