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5.

An hour later, on the rooftop in the daylight, George held his box in the air and Lilah Bay, Annelise Azaine and Rob Ashtree pressed their rings against it. “We have Essence of Andre in here,” said George. “He put it there himself. Just find the strand or strands, and follow them back to the starting point. Even if there are several strands, I mean, he is an amalgam, even then the strands all should go back to the same childhood.”

“Hope so,” Lilah hissed, concentrating.

The three of them closed their eyes and started to fall into the space beyond the box. Inside the darkness of the box, Lilah could smell the Andre. He seemed very un-ghostlike from here. She couldn’t see yet, but she felt him around her, a sort of essence sprayed about, daring and scared, proud and wounded, clever and kind of stupid. And in him, occupying 40% of his emotional surface area, was an idea of Lucy.

It was different from last time or the time before: they did not waver and vanish in a tenth of a second, nor did they find themselves floating in a black world festooned with colored ribbons of time traveler lifetimes. It wasn’t like diving into a lake or like walking through a door: it was more like digging hard earth with a blunt shovel. They dug and dug till their mental arms were worn out. The whole time, Lilah felt like her butt was sticking back out in the real world. She could almost feel Zinnia and George behind her. What did they see? Lilah and company were not, in fact, digging into the hard earth; they were elbowing their way into a different point in time. Normally it would be easy and they would just vanish from the presence of George and Zinnia, but now it was slower, and she could only wonder if they saw her half there and half not. Maybe her butt was still there on the roof in the wan city sunlight.

Lilah was starting to hurt real bad. She could sense her comrades hurting as well. They could give up and start over, but it would be hours before they were ready to try again, and it wouldn’t, presumably, be any easier. She had to assume that they would lose some of the progress they might have made, that the hole they were digging would fill in some. She didn’t want that, and she could sense both Annelise’s and Rob’s minds near hers thinking the same thing.

So they threw themselves into the delving, and things seemed to twist. The grain of the rock they were chopping at with their wooden mallets seemed to bend and curve to the left. They were unable to communicate, of course, and they were each torn between taking the easier direction and taking control of their decisions. It hardly mattered, because not one of them knew where they were going. They were sailing in fog so thick they had to carve it like rock, running a cross country race in woods so deep there was no light, flying in dark space as dense as syrup. In no direction was a clue to what they sought, where they were headed or where they had come from.

For three wizards, it was like death. They should have been in control, in sight line of every place and time, leaping across continents, hurling bolts of force and seeing through layers of stone and lead and steel and enveloping shadow. But now they crashed through the weight of matter, ignorant and insensate, boulders bouncing through the brush on an impossible hillside while the rain and hail beat down. It went on and on, the sense of swimming in rock, with a dawning and still very weak sense that someone was in some direction.

There was something poisonous, and there was something else that was bright like the Sun in some forgotten wavelength, and there was something that sent a vibration at the base of all vibrations. And there was something, Lilah thought, that smelled familiar.

She fought with the impeding universe, she fought her way into the storm of stone, and ever behind her came Annelise and Rob, not quite forgotten, and ever before her was the sense that Elio lurked about.

Lilah thought they were getting the hang of it and would soon be through when, with a disheartening crack, the cosmos around them lurched and then lurched again. They became carried away in a glacier of granite. They met up with a barrier, seemingly over the course of centuries, and were swept to the side, while in the background there was a grinding, buzzing sound.

For a long slow moment, Lilah was looking down upon a ribbon of bluish grey, not a short and ghostly one, a dotted line in space, but a solid path with a series of time jumps in the middle and a long curve into infinity, but before she could approach, the cosmos took another lurch.

And then they were driven into a place of darkness, and they stood in darkness together.

“You guys okay?” asked Lilah.

“Fine,” said Annelise. “I’m good,” said Rob.

“I still hear the buzzing,” said Annelise. “Can you see anything?”

“Nope,” said Lilah. “Totally black. We’re inside some planet or something. Well, I definitely don’t smell Elio.” They stood listening. “Don’t like that sound.”

“Me either,” said Annelise.

“I’m going to guess,” said Rob, “that something about Andre shunted us to a degenerate universe. It’s probably quite unstable.”

“You mean our being here is making it likely to collapse?”

“Yeah,” said Annelise. “I concur with my colleague. My hypothesis would be more in the line of Andre ending up in a place like this, but the upshot is the same.”

“Yeah,” said Lilah. “As in, let’s go home and theorize there, not here.”

“Exactly,” said Rob. “Hey, something dropped on me.”

An tro hal anf ve taev,” Lilah proclaimed, waving her arms and then grabbing Annelise’s left hand and Rob’s right. The last thing they heard in that place was a growing noise like a crack spreading.

The three of them fell backwards onto the roof of their building. It was early evening: there were stars. George and Zinnia and Andre were sitting a little way away, playing cards. They jumped up.

“Ah,” said Lilah, getting up laughing, “don’t ever think Lilah Bay doesn’t have some tricks up her sleeve. Now what the hell was that? What just happened?”

“Ah, ah,” said Rob, dancing to his left. “Ahhh, ahhhhh, ahhhhhh!”

“Ugh—get it!” cried Annelise, slapping at him with her wand. George stepped in, put a jar from his pocket against Rob’s arm, and with a flick, collected a sort of glowing worm thing a couple of centimeters long. “Ugh ugh!” she cried again, jumping. The others assumed she was reacting to the specimen. But she swung her wand and cried, “Trt asht!” and a stream of cold shot forth onto the floor, flash freezing two more of the creatures.

They all looked at George’s jar. The thing in it looked like a fat caterpillar, but with little legs all around. It was colorful, but its colors were changing, and in a few seconds, it burst into flame. Over the course of the next second, the jar imploded with an inverse pop. George found himself holding a pile of hot sand, which he dumped on the floor with a curse.

“What the hell was that,” said Lilah. She looked at George, and she looked at Zinnia. They both met her eyes without smiling, without answering.

Annelise said, “I think I know what those were.”

“I’m glad somebody does. Let’s get inside.”

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