Jacky did not like backing up. She had many tools, but eyes in the back of her head was not one of them. The present situation, however: backing away slowly seemed rather the thing to do.
The pool before her was opaque and not exactly black. It was impossible to make out details on its surface. She did not doubt that it was moving, swirling. The air about her was stale, warm and yet cool on her skin, moist and yet parched.
Jacky backed up. She wondered idly as she did so if she was hitting the footprints from her approach.
She was not sorry she had approached. It had not been a mistake. Coming here at all was not a mistake. Leaving: that would also be the thing to do. If only it were simple: but she could not return the way she had come, not even if she wanted to.
A step. Another step. Another.
She was watching the surface. Her eyesight was excellent, but this stuff challenged her faculty, dark and yet not black, still and yet in subtle motion, opaque and yet, and yet.
Another step, in her comfortable little boots. Watching that—ripple, or not.
In a moment, there was something moving at that opaque surface. One moment only, Jacky watched, her feet on the ground, in the process of shifting weight backwards: wondering if she was seeing something, or if it was just an artifact of the low light and her excellent imagination.
It was rising. It was the top of something like a head, a bald head, still the color of the liquid in the pool. She slowed her speeding breath.
She backed. It rose.
It stood in the pool, dripping, not quite as a swimmer drips standing ankle-deep in the sea. She thought it glared at her, though she could make out no detail in its form: a head, two arms, two legs, no detail.
It took a step. It swung into slow movement forward.
Jacky stepped back. All she had to do was retreat along her path as fast as it advanced, which was not fast, not at present. A step. Another step, the two of them, opaque figure at the edge of the pool, time warrior receding in black boots, in stride.
She concentrated on it. There was nothing else to do with her eyes. But then there was: behind the figure, something was happening on the surface. Another bulge, another dome of smooth head, pushed up into the foul stale air.
There was no doubt: another of the dark figures was rising from the pool. Behind it, over its gleaming black left shoulder, another.
Jacky gave up trying to keep her heart from racing. She considered turning and running: surely she could outrun such things. But she did not really know what such things were capable of. She did not know such things. She considered her current tactic the safest. She backed up, keeping her eyes on the things before her.
The ground was rising as she retreated the way she had come. The way she had come: she could retreat only so far and then that road would be closed. Still, unstumbling, unturning, she backed, one step, one step, one step, among the ruined brush, the withered weeds.
She was alive. Blood flowed in her veins, the lightning of thought flashed across her neurons. The stale breeze moved in her dark hair. Her skin flexed and prickled in the benighted vale. The things before her—three, four, five?—advanced, one step, one step. One was out of the pool, standing on the foul soil. Another stepped forth, dripping. They advanced, to make room for another, another. Another head bulged up out of the liquid.
Jacky retreated, stepping backwards up the slope from the pool. They advanced, implacable, their arms at their sides, their blank, black faces glaring.
Jacky knew it would happen, and it happened: the moment came when she could not retrace her steps any further. That way was closed. The world she had left was no more. That road had led here. She could not go back as she had come.
She had come here because she had been forced to. It had been the only move. For so long behind her, she had made the move she had been forced to make, again and again. It had led her to this place, from which there was no retreat. Perhaps this was the board position from which she had no further move. Perhaps this was it: the end of the endgame.
Jacky. Time warrior. Wizard with a ring. Ring with a big pale blue stone. But even her ring was no use to her here: even that could not win her another move.
Behind her, she felt the slope growing steeper, a slippery slope indeed. Around her, the foulness, the death, the worse than death, choked her lungs, the shadow clung to her clothes like brambles in a swampy wood.
They advanced. If they had breath, she would soon feel it.
Then, as if she noticed a rook or a knight she had forgotten she had, she felt something at her left ankle, something warm, something not of this place. Staying still, her eyes never leaving the foremost figure, now only steps away, Jacky bent at the knees and ankles and lowered a hand. She touched fur.
She stole a glance into those golden-green eyes: color in the colorless world.
Then she rose and swung her left arm forward. With a formless word, she let loose a bolt of bright shade. For just a moment, the thing before her stood up straight, its arms up to ward off the thrust, its face and shoulders illuminated for a fraction of a second. And then it fell back into the arms of the one behind it, and together they fell back down the slope.
Jacky swung her arm around again, her index and middle fingers pointed. She struck the third one, then the fourth, then the fifth. One by one they fell back. Color did not fill the world: no, color only touched a percent of that place, but it was enough. One by one the things went down, and rose again to struggle forward, and went down again, falling further back, until they were back in the pool. They tried to rise, and Jacky, not advancing, not retreating, threw hue at each one that rose, until they rose no more.
The pool was still.
Jacky took one more breath of that stale air. She almost laughed, but sighed instead.
She knelt and put her left hand down into that fur. She felt the purr of response.
“All right, babycakes,” she said. “Good to see you again. Shall we go?”
Receiving a prut in reply, her left hand still buried in grey fur, Jacky used her thumb to twiddle the ring, and the two of them, the lady and the tiger, the time warrior and the housecat, vanished from that place, left that pool in stillness again.