“I’ve never seen a wight-fly so large,” said Ounk. “Usually they grow in sheep, and once the lambs are weaned, they change. That was…”
She shook her head.
Summer could not believe that she was alive. She could not believe that Ankh was dead. It did not seem right that the entire battle, which had taken less than five minutes, was over.
The surviving goose-guard herded them away from the scene of the battle. Summer had to stop several times to be sick, and then, when there was nothing else in her at all, the valet-birds came and cleaned the snot and bile and tears off her face. There were barely half of them left.
“Still,” said Reginald. “Five and a flock against seven on Sleipnerians. We gave ’em blood and thunder.” He sighed. “Ankh most of all.”
“Their mounts did them in,” said Glorious, as the valet-birds cleaned his fur. One of his ears was badly gashed, and they were sewing it up with much chirping commentary. “If they had reacted as horses, they would have been far more dangerous, but spiders try to bite, not kick.” He shook his mane and the valet flock took flight, scolding. “They protect the wrong places and leave their throats vulnerable. Ill-made creatures.”
“I suspect that is why they tried so hard to remove you before the battle,” said Ounk. She glanced over at Reginald. “And you, Master Reginald…you did not do badly. But if your father finds out—”
Reginald snorted. “With this great bloody gash on my face, he’s deuced well going to!”
The gash in question went across the top of his beak and up under one eye. Pale gray skin showed around it, and he was missing a tuft of feathers at the far end.
“Fop,” muttered the weasel.
Summer had not seen him in the fight, but his fur was badly mussed. He groomed himself over and over, which only made his fur look worse.
“If we can move,” said Ounk, “we should get away from here.”
“I don’t think Zultan has many more horses,” croaked Summer. “There just…there weren’t that many of them in the camp…”
Ounk paused. She looked incredibly weary, as if she was holding herself upright by will alone.
Nevertheless, she mustered half a smile and patted Summer’s arm with her wing.
“It’s not Zultan,” she said gently. “It’s the scavengers.”
Summer thought she might be sick again.
“My sister is an Imperial Goose,” said Ounk. “She will understand.”
She held up a spear. The point was sticky with dried slime and caked with dirt. “I have her weapon. We shall give it to the last ones at Almondgrove, when we go home again.”
She paused. “And I retrieved this as well.” She held the cheese-sword out to Summer.
Summer stared at it as if it might attack. It was filthy and sticky and she hated it and wanted it back very badly, all at the same time.
“I will show you how to clean it,” said Ounk. “But take it. If you had not cut off the wight-fly’s wings with it, we would all likely be dead now.”
Summer looked up at her, startled.
“They are nearly unstoppable in the air. It was soft from hatching, but still…that was too close. You did well.”
“Not as well as Ankh,” whispered Summer.
“No. Not as well as Ankh.”
“My brave flock too,” said Reginald sadly, as the valet-birds landed around him. There were many fewer than there had been. “Ah, lads…”
“Yes,” said Ounk. “They, too.”
Together, their numbers less, they stumbled away from the site of the battle.
When Glorious became a house that night, the door to the bedroom hung half off its hinges. The surviving valet-birds set about mending it.
There was a pool nearby—not large enough for bathing, but enough to drink. If they had more water, Summer would have scrubbed herself until her skin was raw. Instead she took off her T-shirt and soaked it and wiped at her face and arms over and over, until Ounk took it away from her and said, “Enough.”
“I want to go home,” said Summer. “I don’t think I can do this.”
Ounk looked at her thoughtfully. “Do you wish to return to Almondgrove, then?”
Summer wished it very much. She wished it as hard as she had ever wished for anything.
She took out the acorn and stared into its carved eyes.
Ankh is already dead, she thought. And if we don’t fix this, why did we come at all? It won’t bring her back, not going. It’ll just mean that she’s one more thing that’s dead. Like the field of wheat and the Pipes and the giant turtle.
“I wish to,” she said slowly, “but I don’t think we should.”
“Can’t go back right now anyway,” said Reginald. He peered at himself in a hand mirror provided by the valet-flock, tracing a feather down the cut in his face. “Not looking like this.”
“It’s not that bad,” said Summer, painfully grateful to talk about something so inconsequential.
“No, no, my good looking days are over,” said Reginald sadly, snapping the mirror closed. “Shan’t be able to show my beak at the assembly.”
“Miss Merope will probably find it dashing,” said Summer.
“Tell her you got it in a pitched battle,” said Ounk.
Reginald puffed up his chest feathers. “Well, I might at that.”
“Where do you think Zultan went?” asked Summer the next morning. She had expected to cry for half the night, but instead she had slept like the drugged dead. She felt sluggish and distant from herself, but alive.
The cheese-sword, scrubbed down with sand, hung at her side.
“Into a hole, if we’re lucky,” said Reginald.
Glorious tested his injured leg. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “He fled when the battle turned, and the wight-fly was…distracting. I would rather he were safely dead.”
“If we were a larger force, I would say that some should go and look for him,” said Ounk. “But there are not enough of us to split our forces, nor even to send back to Almondgrove for reinforcements.”
“You could go, if you think it’s best…” said Summer.
“No. We will go with you to the end,” said Ounk, and then she paused, as if waiting for another voice to speak.
Summer watched the realization spread over the goose-guard’s face, and then Ounk dropped her head an inch and said, quietly, “I will go with you to the end.”
The land did not change a great deal. It was the sky that altered as they travelled, changing from blue to a strange, diffuse white, like clouds with no rain in them.
“We are reaching an edge of the world,” said Glorious simply.
“I didn’t think there was an edge here,” said Summer. She tried to picture a map of Orcus in her head, the way that he had described it. “I thought there was a lot more…um….world in the way.”
“There is,” said Ounk, “but not straight through. There’s a gap here and of course it has edges.”
“Will we fall in?”
“No, no. There’s nowhere to fall. No, it just gets very pale and murky and you don’t know which way is sunward any longer. But it’s not very big. Even a chick could find their way out again. There’s not a hole or a cliff or anything. There’s just nothing much there.”
“Aren’t there gaps in your world?” asked Reginald.
Summer had to stop and think about that. Did stuff like the Bermuda Triangle count?
“Not that everybody knows about,” she said. “There’s stories about places where things disappear. But there aren’t edges that you can just walk up to like this.”
The weasel peered at the sky and scowled. “I don’t like it,” he muttered.
When they camped that night, the sky was dark gray. If the sun came up, it did so on the other side of the whiteness.
Oddly enough, there were trees growing here. They were low, scruffy trees, much like the ones in the badlands that they had left behind, but instead of pines and mesquite, they had broad leaves to soak up every bit of the vague edge-light. It looked like a jungle of broadly spaced houseplants, but none were more than ten feet high, and most of them were darkly colored. They moved through leafy shadows and stripes lay over Glorious’s fur like a tiger.
And then, quite suddenly, they emerged from the brush onto a hillside, and they saw their journey’s end at last.
The palace of the Queen-in-Chains was made of paper.
It thrust up above the hillside like a pale fist. Summer’s first thought was that it was made of newspaper somehow—that makes no sense, there are no newspapers in Orcus, or if there are, I’ve never seen one—because it was the pale, mottled gray of newsprint.
Then she saw the cloud surrounding it, millions of tiny black shapes swirling overhead, and their chained wasp strained at the leash and she knew.
It was a wasp nest.
“How…” Reginald stopped and swallowed. “How many wasps d’you think are in there?”
Glorious shook his head.
“Millions,” said Ounk. She jammed the butt of her spear against the ground. “They flock as thick as starlings.”
“A starling flock that size would be a god,” said Glorious.
“Maybe it’s a god of wasps,” said Summer.
She felt strangely detached. Part of her, the part that cowered away from bees, that flailed in a panic at yellow jackets, said, it is a hive and the things in there will sting you and sting you and sting you…
Another part did not believe it. It was too large. Wasps did not make nests the size of cathedrals. A god of wasps would be easier to understand, somehow, and gods did not sting you.
The wasp on the string buzzed, straining toward the others. Summer untied it from the bottle with fingers that seemed to belong to someone else.
It flew away, still trailing the string behind it, and was lost in the cloud surrounding the nest.
They went a little closer, and then Ounk stopped.
“’ware the edge,” she said.
They had come to a gash in the earth. Their side of the chasm was higher, and so they had not seen it when they approached. The wasp side was perhaps twenty feet lower.
Glorious turned his head, looking both ways. “I could jump it,” he said, “but I could not jump back.”
Summer swallowed. On the other side, they would be trapped with the wasp nest.
That’s stupid. Wasps can fly. They could get us no matter where we stood.
“There’s a bridge,” said Reginald.
Summer followed his pointing wing and laughed in disbelief.
The bridge had no handholds. It was a single piece of wood, though it looked more like an immense bark chip than anything else.
They approached it cautiously. You wanted to be cautious, because it seemed that if you breathed too hard, you might send it spinning into the depths.
“There’s someone there,” said the weasel.
“There wasn’t—” Reginald began, and then “Oh, hang it, now there is.”
A person…assembled itself…at the end of the bridge. They watched it grow from a low, crawling hump into something larger, and then it turned and looked at them.
Summer swallowed hard. She had met many people in Orcus and many of them were not human. I am used to this. I am stronger than this. I can handle this.
A thousand wasps crawled over one another, making a shape some eight feet tall. Sometimes it was roughly human shaped, but the number of arms changed as the wasps moved restlessly back and forth. Sometimes it was a bird or a wolf. Parts broke free and flew, buzzing, to join the main body.
Is there anything under there? Is it all just insects?
Wasps moved on the thing’s head, pressing their banded abdomens together, so that suddenly the person had black eyes ringed with gold.
The eye wasps fanned their wings together, and the person seemed to blink.
I will not scream, Summer told herself conversationally. I will not.
The lower half of the face broke open and the person’s tongue waved its antennae at her.
The voice, when it came, came from all parts of the body.
“Zzzzzzhhhy havvvve youuu commmme?”
The jaw moved up and down, independent of the voice. That made it a little easier, somehow. She could think of it like a marionette. Marionettes were always a little creepy. That’s all this is. The wasps are moving it. It’s not a real person. It’s just a puppet.
It spoke again, the same buzzing rhythm, the vowels more pauses in the buzz than sounds.
Ounk spoke, as formal as a herald bearing her monarch’s wishes. “We have come to speak with the Queen-in-Chains.”
The wasp puppet bobbed its head. It reached out an arm that got longer and longer (the other arm vanished as it did). The eyes separated and flew down to become fingers and splayed into a hand.
It pointed at Summer.
She knew that it said something but she could not hear it over the roaring in her ears.
What—no—not me—not alone—
It blinked again. The eyelid wings caught the hard blue light of the desert sky and for a moment they flashed turquoise.
She felt as if she had been struck a blow, and yet, she had been braced for it. Baba Yaga had sent her here alone. Her friends had come to see her this far.
The writing on the chamber under her heart said, I knew it would come to this.
Still, the blow was harder than she had expected. She took in a breath and could not seem to get it all the way to the bottom of her lungs.
Then she slid down from Glorious’s back.
“Steady on,” said Reginald. “If you go, we all go.”
The wasp puppet shook its head in an exaggerated motion. Its neck grew longer as it did, and for a brief moment its head hovered independent of its body.
“Do you wish us to fight?” asked Ounk, as calmly as if she were asking the time of day, and not do you wish us to die?
Glorious vibrated with a growl that could not be heard over the buzzing of the wasps.
“We came here to find the Queen,” said Summer. “And they…they don’t seem hostile. We should try to keep it that way.”
“If you are trapped inside, we will probably not be able to reach you in time,” said Ounk.
Glorious snorted. “If we ran now, with all our speed, they could have us all before we made a hundred yards. Let us not pretend that there is any more safety for Summer here than there.”
Ounk scowled but did not disagree.
The great wolf turned and put his head on Summer’s shoulder. “Go well, Summer-cub,” he said. “And if we do not meet again in this life, let us meet in another with no regrets.”
Summer leaned her cheek on Glorious’s muzzle and said, very quietly, “I wish I were a wolf.”
“If you were one of my cubs,” said Glorious, just as quietly, “I would be glad to claim you.”
He licked her forehead. She straightened her back.
“Dash it!” said Reginald. “Oh—blast! This shouldn’t be happening!”
“But it is,” said Summer. She swallowed. “It may be fine,” she said. “I’ll…I’ll talk to the Queen and come back. If she’s willing to meet with me, maybe that’s a good sign.”
Ounk bowed to her as she passed.
The weasel squirmed furiously. “I’m coming with you,” he growled. “Baba Yaga sent me with you, and I’m not leaving now. They can only sting me. She’ll do something nasty.”
His weight made her pocket a tiny bit heavier, but Summer felt a very, very little bit lighter.
The wasp puppet did not object. It turned and walked across the bridge—though it couldn’t really be said to walk. All the wasps flew forward at the same speed and so it moved, mostly upright, without any motion of legs or arms.
The bridge was sturdier than it looked.
Well, it would have to be!
It was definitely bark, though, a great slab of bark from some tree so large that it made the giant sequoias of Summer’s world look like saplings. There were holes in it as big as Summer’s two fists, and it occurred to her, about halfway across, that they were made by woodworms, and woodworms that size would be—
No. Don’t think about that.
She had to watch where she stepped because of the holes, and that was good. It meant that she was not looking at the back of the wasp puppet.
On the far side she stopped and looked up and back at her friends.
They lined the canyon wall, looking at her. Ounk raised her spear in salute. The valet-flock swirled around Reginald like tiny, agitated planets around their star.
“Zzzz?” said the puppet, looking back at her.
“It’s nothing,” said Summer quietly. She turned back. “Please take me to the Queen-in-Chains.”