Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone ran like the wind. The grassland was magenta and there was an enormous pale moon in the day sky, and the whole world smelled like mint. All this he noticed, and the high ground and the stands of big-fronded trees, but most of all the distance between them and the sluggish expanding pool edged in fire behind him.
Jeanette was a curled ball of misery in his arms, and Gad the beetle was lodged between her and his mirror armor, doing the strange thin ululation that approached singing. His heart was as broken as hers, and perhaps his spirit too, but a life of duty had taken hold and was dead set on saving their lives.
Poking over a hill in the middle distance looked to be a forest canopy of some size, and he turned swiftly and ran for it. But as he scanned from immediate to distant he saw something that made him stop and, for an instant, give thanks.
It was a stone, out of place in the landscape, but nestled in the magenta grass. It was on a small flat rise that once might have been a habitation or a temple--all that remained of any sign of intelligent use was an irregular risen edge. And the stone.
He knew that he alone could not manipulate a Decision Tree portal, but perhaps he could go through carrying one who could, without disturbing her to touch the symbol. He extended a foot towards the stone--and saw it vanish. Hesitating no further, he stepped forward.
They were now in a tall dark forest. Green was once again the dominant color, but most of the trees, instead of single huge circumference, were clusters of smaller stems, though unified under a common bark. It was day and the sun was yellow, and very little could be seen of the sky. He had not paused a second to take this in, but ran in the direction of the thickest part of the woods.
When the closeness of the trees made running difficult, he picked the biggest tree and, with one hand and two feet, climbed it quickly and with ease.
There was a level where the individual trunks separated and formed a nest of sorts, below the final upper canopy. The light was warm and green, and there was a mulch of soft leaves, half-filling the depression. Gently, the tiger separated Jeanette from his armor and laid her down.
“I said it,” she sobbed. “I did it. I did it.” The tone of her voice prevented him from reaching out to her.
The sobs heaved her entire body. “I said--I wanted--to go into danger. I said it and we went and now they’re both dead. They’re all dead. And I did it.”
“If we had just kept running maybe they’d be alive. Maybe we’d be cramped and unhappy and far from everything but they’d still be alive.” Her voice rasped and became harder. “Or maybe I’d just be the one who died and they’d be unhappy for a while, but they’d still be alive.”
She looked up at him for the first time. His voice, when he said the word, didn’t sound like him at all.
“They died fighting your mutual enemy--that I have made mine by vow, but that you--you all-- possess by the core of who you are. And they died shoulder to shoulder with your own kind, under the very eyes of the armada of your fellows. There was never any assurance that they would have any more than that. If you gave them death, you also gave them that.”
“They died protecting your life, so they died in triumph. And yes, yes, yes, Jeanette Ransom all that means that they’re still dead because of you. And it well might be that I’m next--to die so that you may live. In fact, I think it quite likely. And nothing you can say or do, little girl, will sway me from that purpose.”
He reached behind his mirrored breastplate, and brought out a smooth black stone. It was larger than a world jewel, but of a similar shape. “I took this stone from your father. The King of Ys gave it to him, telling him that if he removed Oberon’s Orchid--which we still, after all this, wear--and your jewelry and your gloves, and pressed it to your forehead, that it would send you home.”
“Home. Back to that Earth of yours, with your tablet and your books and the prospect of middle school, and you would be disguised from all Exiles--all Warriors of the Imagination, all toons--as safe as anything is in Infinity--and all this grief and loss and bitterness not even a fading dream.”
“I took it from him, I said, and fiercely did so, because he would succumb to that desire--that there would be a dozen times we went through where he would use it, because he was your father and he loved you so. He saw the truth of it, and gave it to me, making me swear that when the time really came--when there was really no choice--that I wouldn’t stint at using it.”
“That time, daughter, draws near. But in this I break my vow, because the only one with the right to use it is you.”
From the depths of her grief and emptiness, a huge wave of unreality swept over her. All a dream? Or even less? Back to who she was? Waking up on the last page of a book,, and scowl a little, and go on to a new book or start a new game?
“Or run, daughter. Run along the paths of Cosmic Infinity, run to find the figures of power in this war--find new allies better at this than we have been--run, until you can turn and strike at the blind mad heart of Deep Chaos, with me or without me. Remember me, remember us all--but run. One or the other.”
She stared at the black stone. And it was all a dream…
Lord Elphinstone arose. “But now we must go. The enemy has reassembled itself, and will be here shortly.”