Garner stooped to wipe the ichor of the last Tainted from his sword. The oppressive eye of the sun was at last sinking beneath the horizon, soothing his head but diminishing even his sharpened eyesight. Standing frozen for a moment he listened silently for any sound of other infected creatures hastening to the call of their dead kin. Hearing nothing, he smiled at the blade in memory of its original owner before sliding it home. It was a comforting ritual that he had now performed hundreds of times.
Scooping up the dead animal he had ventured out to find, Garner trudged unerringly back to the tiny clearing that passed for his camp. By the time he arrived, the stars were emerging in the reassuring navigational patterns that had remained constant through even his extended years. His prisoner started nervously when the low sounds of his approach finally betrayed his presence, but relaxed upon the sight of his familiar weathered plate.
"You take longer every time," the reedy man complained. "I was almost convinced that you'd abandoned me. You do know what would happen if a Tainted came by here while you were taking a walk?" He wriggled uselessly against the ropes that bound him to a tree at the clearing's edge.
"I take my duty of care seriously, as you well know," Garner retorted irritably. It had taken every ounce of his dedication to the ancient Code of Warriors to accept Jerek's yield. The fact that he was obligated to protect the man while he remained a prisoner was like an obscene joke by the world itself. "Your former minions are simply becoming increasingly successful at wiping out all other life. Yet I found this eventually," he held up the bloodless body of a small hare, "so it seems that you will eat today."
"Wonderful!" Jerek regarded the meagre morsel with offensive cheerfulness. "Does this mean that I will be untied long enough today to make it edible? Or do you still remember how to cook?"
Garner fumed impotently for a few seconds, racking his brain for the details of domestic chores that had been attended to by others in his youth and unneeded for much of his mature existence. "Fine," he responded at last. "But no sorcery. You can make your cooking fire the mundane way."
He began to unfasten the ropes, keeping a wary eye upon his enemy as he did so. So far Jerek had been true to his promise of surrender, but the only reason that he ever untied the man was a vague memory from before his sleep. Keron had once given him a detailed explanation of the uses of rope, mostly for the sake of watching Garner squirm when he strayed into recreational territory. In truth, adventuring with Tyrion's band had long since accustomed the noble to many of the world's ways, but he had affected discomfort for the rogue's amusement. Most of the technicalities were long forgotten, but he recalled that perpetual bindings eventually caused problematic loss of circulation. The fact that prolonged gagging was also potentially dangerous was a constant source of regret to him.
Jerek rose with a wince, rubbing his wrists as he examined the animal. "Of course! Perish the thought that we do anything the quicker way. Do I get a knife, or must I cut it up with my teeth?"
"A knife you can have," Garner chuckled darkly. He drew a small killing blade from beneath his gauntlet and tossed it downward, the casual force sinking it hilt-deep into the earth beside Jerek's feet. "It would take more than that to kill me, as well you know. As for time, it matters not. I am immortal, after all..."
"Are you?" Jerek remarked with mock surprise. "Why, I'm not sure that has ever come up in conversation before." Leaning over to grasp the knife handle, he idly gave it a sudden savage twist before smoothly drawing the loosened blade from the wound in the ground. Dashing off the remaining soil with two swift flicks across his boot, he began preparing his food while continuing to talk. "Of course, if you had something of import to achieve - saving the world, for instance - it might behove you to get the job done even before a mortal would succumb to senility. Not that I want you to -"
"I will kill your wife soon enough!" Garner snarled angrily, taking a petty satisfaction in watching the man wince. "If I fail, however, there are none left to take up the fight. More dead or fewer dead is no longer a concern." He shook his head at the once-unthinkable sentiment. "What matters is that victory means life will survive. I cannot afford even one wrong move, or I die and it is all over."
"If only that were true," Jerek mused ruefully. "The number of times you blundered into one of my traps..." He stopped and smiled. "Anyway, we are both being rude. Aren't you going to introduce me to your lady friend?"
Garner stared blankly for a second, then his eyes flared wide and his hand shot to his neck. Yet the tarnished locket was still there and the frighteningly powerful rage in his chest died as quickly as it had been born.
"What foolishness is this? I have no patience for your games." He silently hoped that Jerek had missed the flash of weakness, but knew in his suddenly aching heart that the man never did.
Jerek turned, his usually cunning face a mask of puzzlement. "She arrived just after you... I simply... assumed..."
His eyes were looking past Garner. The knight spun about, the trusty sword singing from its sheath. The elegant woman at the clearing's edge did not even flinch, as if the threat of several feet of lightly enchanted steel was entirely inconsequential to her present business. The tall figure was only superficially human - her immaculate beauty and alien poise reminded Garner of the Fair Folk, although her emotionless demeanour seemed out of place for one of such a mercurial species.
"I do not wish to fight. I require your aid." She spoke clearly and abruptly, her voice carrying perfectly despite the lack of emotion behind it. "The worlds are in peril."
Garner lowered his sword slightly, but remained wary. In the old times the Fair Folk had attempted to invade the mortal world of Ferraris more than once. Now they patrolled the borderlands in desperate fear of invasion from the realm they had once coveted, with only the Tainted and outlawed amongst them remaining outside the protected borders of Faerie.
"I am well aware of the peril of the Taint, my lady," he addressed the women with a courtly politeness long unused. "I am already bound toward a battle that I believe can end it. That man is an enemy of my cause," he added as the woman's gaze turned toward Jerek, "but he has failed to stop me and is now my prisoner."
"You will both fail." The lady pronounced the verdict as if it were unrelated to her point.
Garner laughed grimly, a resolute sound that he had first heard from Tyrion's mouth so very long ago. "Many have told me so, my lady. Yet I will not stop while I can take but one more step." He frowned, glancing back toward Jerek. "Hold. What do you mean, we shall both fail? My failure is the only success that this one has ever desired."
"Your goals are the same," the woman contradicted imperiously. "You both seek to preserve what you value at the cost of destroying what you do not. For you, that means slaying the Matriarch to end the Taint and preserve the rest of Ferlais' creatures. For him, it means protecting her even if her Taint enslaves all other life." She paused, and a look of genuine concern crossed her brow. "When this and all other worlds are unwritten from existence, both of your objectives will be utterly thwarted."
The simple delivery of the words hit Garner like a physical blow. He would ignored the most inhumanly seductive appeal to divert from his errand, perhaps even the most tearful plea. Yet there was something about the ineptitude of the woman's pitch that gave her a terrible kind of credibility. No deceiver would expect such a understated method to pay off.
He looked again at Jerek, too alarmed even to question himself for seeking council from the man. The sorcerer had clearly concluded that the stranger was inhuman, his gaze fixed upon her as he studied the intangible threads of magic binding her into the world. It was a slow process, but whatever conclusions he was reaching were draining the colour from his cheeks and etching fear onto his face.
"There is an alternative," her voice drew Garner's attention back to her. "I can transport you into The Book, from within which you can save it and in consequence yourselves. On emergence I can return you to this very moment within your own narrative continuity, so that you will not lose the opportunity to continue this world's epilogue. I cannot guarantee that you will not die in the attempt, but that hazard is no greater than declining my offer." She stepped forward and regarded the pair. "I believe that you have the necessary resolve to seek a good conclusion. To be clear, I use 'you' in its plural form".
"I would not leave this one unguarded in any case," Garner conceded reluctantly, trying to unravel the peculiar terms the woman had used and little liking the implications of the few theories that he could form. "If the claims you make are genuine, plainly I have far more to lose by refusal than acceptance. But be warned, if this is a trick "
"It is no trick." Jerek's voice held an edge of wonder that Garner had never heard before. "This being comes from further afield than I could ever have imagined, much further than the Taint. I cannot imagine what would draw her here save a crisis closer to home." He bowed to Lady Ink. "I will go, with or without my captor."
"You will go nowhere without me," Garner asserted. Privately concluding that he might well find it impossible to prevent the woman from taking Jerek, he pushed aside his doubts. He had faced worse than whatever this being might set before him. "I shall also go as you ask."
"Excellent." There was a trace of satisfaction in the Lady's even tone. "I cannot accompany you or aid you once I have sent you into the book. I can, however, furnish you with an advantageous Construct."
Without explaining herself further, she began to trace a shape into the air. An inky blackness flowed from her fingers, hanging in the air in the form created by her motion. Once the line was joined into an unbroken border she slid her fingers around to grasp the shape and offered it toward Garner.
Sheathing his blade with only the briefest smile in its direction, Garner reached out and wrapped his own hand around the shape. As the Lady's hand withdrew, a miniature shield made of some light metal snapped into existence where the ink border had been.
Behind him, Jerek made a choking gasp. Garner ignored him. He had seen magical transmutation many times, but could not recall a single occasion on which a solid thing had been created out of apparent nothingness save for ice out of water which he understood to be already present in the air. Doubtless there was some technical reason why the feat was terribly impressive. Had she been here, Marliane would likely have enthused on the subject for hours. But Garner was a practical man and judged the impressiveness of a spell by its usefulness. Producing such a small and frail token was a minor thing.
"Thank you." He bowed slightly out of politeness and stowed the thing in a pouch at his belt. Perhaps the woman had intended to form a sturdy full-size shield, in which case she was likely too proud to admit defeat. If so, he was happy enough to let her save face. The gesture had impressed one of them anyway.
The lady stood back, and began sketching a much larger form in the air. An inky blackness appeared within the border, collapsing into what Garner recognised as a magical portal. Jerek slung the half-prepared hare over his shoulder by its hind legs - the knife disappearing somewhere into the folds of his leathers under cover of the movement - and approached the gateway. Unwilling either to leave Jerek alone in their world or to give him a head start at their destination, Garner strode forward and grabbed the man by the back of his neck before marching them both through the portal. He had passed through many such borders in his time and expected that this would be no different.
He could not have been more wrong.
The impression was similar to that of a river boatman who had one day decided that he would cross the ocean. The mortal world fell away, but the expected destination did not come. The feeling of acceleration continued and somehow Garner could sense the other planes of existence also falling away as they plunged into an unimaginable void. As all he had ever imagined or experienced receded into an imperceptible pinprick, he became dimly aware of innumerable other worlds hanging in the expanse like terrifying numbers of stars.
An object appeared in the distance before them, gaining definition as they plunged toward it. It resolved into the shape of a codex, the pages flourishing open as if to welcome their arrival. The ornate text on the leaves was written in a language that Garner had never known, but the meaning behind each figure seemed to bypass his eyes and evoke a world in every character. Just before they reached the book Garner saw a single page scribed in a different hand. The black ink seemed crude and ugly, as if the page had been scarred by it. Before the meaning of the strange text could register in his conscious mind they collided with the volume and it swallowed them whole.
For a couple of minutes the pull of the ground, the air on their faces and the light above them seemed like an alien sensation. They stood trembling as their minds contracted back to a normal level of awareness, sliding home into the new world they had entered like men awakening from a vivid dream.
"Please tell me that you don't intend to lead me through this on a rope." Jerek's voice eventually broke the silence, an audible current of fear running beneath his derisory query.
"No." Garner shook his head after a moment of consideration. "I do not release you, but it seems that our goals are one in this errand." Drawing a naked blade of black steel from his belt, he offered the skull-shaped pommel toward his prisoner. "Take your sword and let us find out where on Ferlais we are."
Jerek smiled at the expression as he slid the sword into the empty sheath at his belt. "Slow on the uptake as always, my captor," he sighed. "If there's one thing we may be sure of at this point, it is that we are nowhere on Ferlais any more."