The left monster goes for me, the other two go for Hayley. I only just managed to slay one before; how can we possibly hope to defeat three?
“Consider this the final test,” the man continues, suddenly no longer beside us and instead watching dispassionately from the foot of the gates. “Whichever of you should succeed will have shown themselves capable of taking up my mantle. Should either of you fail... then the choice of who should replace me is made for us.”
I stab wildly at the creature, aiming to weaken it by landing the first strike, but it blocks my blade with a claw and bites at my face. I lean away from the attack, but to my right I can see Hayley pinned to the floor by another.
“They were like you once,” the man carries on, “before the Darkness reached them. The one you’re struggling with was once a Tanzanian warrior, long before your time. And that one,” he gestures at Hayley. “Was a Martian architect. They all turn just the same.”
The beast slashes at my stomach, widening the wound its brother dealt on the grey world. I’m falling apart - I’m amazed I’ve lasted this long. Ignoring the pain and seeing an opening, I attempt to plunge my knife into the gap in the monster’s armour I found before, but instead it blurs backwards, out of my reach. I stumble forward, having already committed myself to the strike, and the beast leaps back at me, its jaws wide.
An arrow takes one of its legs out from underneath it and it trips, tumbling past me as I leap away to the right. I turn, amazed Hayley’s managed to escape the monsters, but she’s still on the ground, holding one back with her bow as a brace. So who…
Another arrow shoots over my shoulder, hitting one of the monsters attacking Hayley in the torso, and I twist to see the shooter, which is –
The stricken monster staggers backwards, and the Hayley on the ground lashes out at the other creature while its eyes are on her double. The second Hayley rushes it as the first slips a knife into that weak point in its armour.
I have to turn to fend off my own attacker, but I hear Hayley – one of them – say: “The door in your mind. Open it! It’ll work this time!”
When I next glance around, there’s only one Hayley, locked in combat with the monster that had taken the arrow.
“Guess you’re not so special!” Hayley taunts me. “Time travel – piece of cake!”
“You should be careful with that,” the Guardian calls to us, observing passively from afar. “It is good to see you using the power that has already passed from me into you, but crossing your own timeline like that is a terrible idea.”
“Well excuse us for trying to survive!” Hayley cries, darting away from her foe and spinning around with her knife.
My monster hisses suddenly, and in my mind I hear a word, and I’m surprised both by the complexity of the concept and the fact that it means me. Abomination.
Its fury bursts like a dam has broken, and it lunges for me, both claws sweeping round like a vice closing on my throat. I duck below the strike, the wound in my belly screaming, and I plunge my blade up into that gap between its armour.
Spasms shake its body, its mouth opening in a silent howl, and as I pull my knife free, it judders backwards and collapses.
Quick as a flash, I move onto Hayley, who I find locked together with the last monster in a desperate struggle. Her nose is broken and blood streams from a gash in her side, but like me, she refuses to give up. It occurs to me that this one’s bigger than the other two, and bulkier, with a longer abdomen that stretches behind it, almost like a twisted reflection of a horse...
“Hayley!” I shout, and pull her back from the snapping, snarling creature. “It’s Iain!”
She gasps, realising I’m right, but it’s all she can do to bring her bow up to block its claws before they reach her.
“Iain!” I shout. “Listen to me!” but the beast simply turns and hurls itself at me. I stab upwards, but my blade bounces off its armour, and it’s on me, forcing me to the ground.
“Your friend is dead!” the Guardian says. “This is why we walk the path alone – and why I guided the three of you together. You must learn to let go.”
The monster that was Iain bites at me, its razor-sharp teeth closing on my shoulder, right where the lizard-beast bit me back where I first met Hayley. I scream, blood spraying across the monster’s face, but it doesn’t let go. I pound weakly at the creature’s armour with my knife, but I can’t find an opening. I can’t take much more of this.
Hayley’s by my side. She hesitates for a fraction of a second that feels like a lifetime – and then her knife thuds into the monster’s abdomen. It howls, a terrible sound, and for a moment it sounds like the last cry of our friend.
And then it lies still.
I fall to the ground, clutching my ruined shoulder, despite the agony of the wound in my belly. I’m losing a lot of blood.
Hayley’s kneeling beside me.
“Heal him!” she screams at the man, who’s now standing right alongside her.
“If I do, I’ll die,” the man says quietly, “and I still have much to explain. You must be trained in the way of O. You must learn what it means to be Guardian.”
She rushes him in a burst of uncharacteristic ferocity, pinning him to the ground, her knife against his throat. His hood falls back as he hits the ground, revealing the face of a man in his seventies, his skin haggard and wrinkled, his hair white. I’m surprised at how ordinary he seems.
He does not struggle.
“Hayley,” I croak, unable to raise my head. The world is starting to darken. My chest is wet with blood, and it’s starting to pool around me. I weakly move my fingers to feel it. It’s warm, and sticky. “Hayley,” I try again. “Don’t…”
“Shut up,” she hisses at me, moving the knife quickly enough to draw a little of the Guardian’s blood. “I’m saving you, Felix. He’s saving you.”
The Guardian stares at her. His ancient eyes flick to me, and then back to her. He sighs, and the exhaustion of the years is heavy on his face again. Lying here now, I feel a little of his pain. Death waits, smiling from the wings, nodding gently as we say our last lines, ready to welcome us off the stage with warmth and praise. One of us will go to him now. I can feel it.
“So be it,” the man says finally. “I’ll heal her, and there will be two. But you must remember that there can only be one. Choose between yourselves - of the thousands I called, only you two made it to the end. Only you two are fit for the task. The call will guide you from world to world. Your task is to find the Darkness and purge it, and seal the wounds where they entered. Let me up, and I will explain. Then, I’ll heal your friend.”
Slowly, she withdraws her knife. The man gets to his feet, and walks over to the monsters’ corpses. Despite the pain, I turn my head to follow him. He steps over the bodies, approaching the shimmering patch of darkness, waiting in the air. “More will follow through here,” he says. “The Darkness is infinite, and this is a hole in its cage.” He raises his scarred hand, allowing it to hover mere inches away from the black. “It is the role of the Guardian to seal the wounds, before they spread like a cancer and consume the life of each and every world.”
He turns to look at us. “Did you ever wonder why, whichever world you visited, you were alone?”
It’s true, I’d wondered before, many times. “Those were worlds the Darkness had claimed, all sentient life gone. Worlds without intelligence, without civilisation, without souls. Without the Guardian to seal the wounds, to keep the Gates closed, all worlds would be emptied. Plants, beasts, and ashes would be all that remain.”
“The fire world…” I manage to say, and he nods, grimly. “They resisted, but I could not save them.”
He turns towards me, almost gliding through the dust to be my by side. He fixes me with a gaze full of sorrow, and raises his scarred hand.
Closing my eyes does nothing to shield me from the light. It floods me, embraces me, utterly consumes my body. As I was in the cave when I first heard his voice, I am filled with a sense of total peace. When the light finally fades, my wounds are healed again. Hayley sighs with relief and pulls me up, wrapping me in her arms. I turn back to look at the man, but he’s crumbling like dust, his skin and robes flaking away into nothing. As he fades, all that’s left is a simple silver pendant, a pentagram crudely etched into it, and his voice in the air.
“There must always be a Guardian.”
We sit on the ground where the Guardian last stood, the darkness hovering not far away, and we talk.
One of us must take the Guardian’s place, and though it’s still not entirely clear to us what precisely that would involve, it’s obvious that the one who takes up the pendant will never return home.
“What about the other?” I ask Hayley.
“Well, the Guardian could send us where he wanted,” she reasons. “So whoever takes his place could send the other home, couldn’t they?”
I nod. “That makes sense. Is that…”
I trail off.
She looks at me expectantly.
“Is that what you want?” I finish.
She frowns. “It’s what I always wanted…” she says hesitantly. “But… I couldn’t leave you on your own. That wouldn’t be fair.”
I can’t help but smile faintly at her kindness. It says a lot about her that she would even consider that. We’ve both been away a long time, and she has a life waiting for her back home. Family. But…
“It’s funny,” I say. “I always wanted to go home too. But the idea of letting you do… this, by yourself. I couldn’t bear it.”
She smiles back at me, and we find ourselves looking into each other’s eyes. I lean slightly closer to her. For a moment, we both see something, hovering in the air between us. Something that could be. Perhaps in another life, in some alternate timeline where none of this ever happened to us.
In that universe, where we’re both just normal people living normal lives, I lean all the way, and I kiss her, and she kisses me. We hold each other, and the sun comes up, and we live our lives. We might go on a few dates. We might end up together, we might not – who knows. We’d give it a try, anyhow. Maybe we’d get married. Maybe we’d have kids. Maybe we’d grow old together, and one day, we’d move on together for one last time.
But that’s not our story. There is no future where we end up together. Hayley deserves better. She deserves to go home, to be with her family, to live a normal life apart from this. I’ve decided, right now, that I’m going to become the Guardian, and I’m going to send her home.
We both pull away at once.
“I’m doing it,” we say at the same time, with equal determination.
“Hayley-” I try to say, but she talks over me.
“You deserve better, Felix,” she insists. “You deserve to go home. You have a family, and they need to know you’re alive.”
I shake my head. “Then you can find them and tell them for me,” I say. “You’re going home, Hayley. Let me give this to you.”
“Damn it, Felix!” she cries, getting to her feet. “Stop trying to be the hero! Let me do this! Let me save you!”
I pull myself up after her and look her in the eye.
“I can’t let you do that. I can’t let you sacrifice yourself for me.”
We’re practically squaring off against each other now, both furious at the other’s stubbornness. I take a deep breath.
“Okay,” I say, lowering my voice and sitting again by our packs. “Let’s take a minute. Calm down and let’s talk about this some more.”
She lets out a long breath, and eventually sits beside me.
“Fine,” she says. “The Guardian said we had a few hours before that opens again.” She points to the patch of darkness.
We sit in silence for a few moments, and my stomach growls. Neither of us was expecting it, and we both giggle.
“When did we last eat?” she asks.
“Dinner last night, I think,” I say. “No wonder I’m starving!”
We both brought a few bundles of roots from the grey world with us in our packs. It’s a habit we’ve always kept up, never knowing when we’ll need to move on, and if there’ll be food when we arrive. We chew on them quietly for a while, and Hayley gently takes my hand. Neither of us says anything.
When we’re done with our last meal, my mind’s totally made up.
“We should drink, too,” I say, rummaging in my backpack for a few moments before producing my bottle. I lift it to my lips, but then I offer it to Hayley instead.
“There isn’t much left,” I say. “Take what you want, and I’ll have the rest.”
She shakes her head. “That’s sweet, Felix, but it’s yours.”
“I insist,” I say firmly. “Let me be a gentleman just this once.”
She laughs, and takes the bottle, allowing herself a couple of quick sips. “I’ve decided,” she says suddenly. “You’re going home. Without you, I’d be dead right now, so it’s only fair.”
“You’ve saved me too,” I say, shaking my head.
“We’re never going to agree on this, are we?” she laughs
“Probably not,” I reply sadly.
“So we keep arguing until you accept I’m right.” She takes another sip from the bottle, and licks her lips. “This tastes amazing,” she says, surprised. “I guess I was thirsty.”
She hands the bottle to me, but I let it fall to the ground, the purple-tinged water spilling out onto the dust. She looks at me, horror spreading across her features as she realises what I’ve done.
“The berries…” she says. “From the river world…”
“We were never going to agree,” I reply.
She stands, anger in her eyes, and takes a step towards me, but sways on her feet.
“Felix! That’s not fair!”
She raises a hand, and for a moment she looks like she’s going to hit me, but she starts to topple instead, and I jump up to catch her, gently lowering her to the ground.
“Let me save you,” I whisper.
She shakes her head, her eyes starting to close against her will.
“You shouldn’t… be alone…” she murmurs back.
A tear rolls down my cheek, and I realise I’m crying. Her eyes are wet too.
“Neither should you,” I tell her, but she’s already asleep.
I look down at her, lying peacefully in my arms, her hair matted, her face blotchy from the tears she never quite shed, and it occurs to me that she’s utterly beautiful. But I already know what I have to do. I lay her down softly, and get to my feet.
The pendant lies waiting in the dust where the Guardian left it. I pick it up, and I can practically feel the power bound inside it. I glance at Hayley for once last time as the man she travelled with, and slip it over my head. It pulses, the world throbs, and suddenly I can feel everything, the whole of reality, pouring through my mind. I can feel the worlds, billions of them, spinning through the Void, and know every single one.
I feel the Darkness behind the Gates, and I sense the wounds in the worlds through which it floods, black, clinging and evil beyond comprehension. I feel the call to go them, seal them, and I know that’s my destiny. But there is one thing I must do first.
I go to Hayley and brush my hand against her cheek - already the scar of the pentagram is emerging on my palm. She doesn’t stir. “Live,” I whisper, kissing her forehead, and reach out with my newly opened mind, finding the bright light of billions of souls on one particular world. Earth. Home. I wrap the thought of Hayley in the light of that world, my palm glowing with power. And she’s gone.
Finally, after all this time, she’s gone home.
I can afford no such luxury. I have work to do. The Darkness is growing, and only I can hold back the tide. I turn to the wound in the world through which it spoke to us before, and with a burst of power I seal it irrevocably shut. Then, I open the door in my mind, and I move on to the world where the next wound waits, ready to drive back the monsters that pour forth.
My name is Felix Aiden Lewis.
I am the Guardian.
And I am alone.
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