The path had been washed clear a fortnight before by the season’s first gentle rains, and in the days that followed, the spring’s warmth absorbed any hint of dampness that would cling to her feet. She could find no fault with her path or her duties as Guardian, and though optimistic, she remained vigilant, anticipating what she could not see.
A sudden wind stirred the grass and an unmistakable rumble rolled beneath her feet. The ground shook and dread fell from the trees. Her pace quickened to match the beat of her heart, but where to turn, she did not know.
The shadow loomed to engulf her, the forewarning she knew too well. She did not have time to change her footing, as the beast came at her vicious and strong, tackling her from behind, forcing her to taste the harsh reality of her choices.
Not willing to relive yet another blow, she scrambled to her feet, but slipped.
Thick, oily, green-gray mud bubbled up from between the cracks on the once smooth path, through the seams she had spent years of her life mending.
The blue sky swirled with fear and darkened to a toxic hue, then unloosed its watery fury, pelting her with shards of wet, gleaming steel. Her shoulders hunched against the pain as each stab created divots in her armor. With cold and shaking hands, she swiped at them uselessly.
Footsteps approached. Some fast, some slow, but she recognized each one. They’d always been there, surrounding her, urging her forward. Never had they allowed her to falter or lose sight of her task. Normally she basked in their presence, but now she dare not look up, for she did not want them to see the uncertainty in her eyes. The need to run and claim to the menacing skies “Let me be! I am not as strong as you believe!” exploded from her cells, howling for release.
Wisps of light circled her, hovering only moments until she closed her eyes in surrender. Blue-white heat grazed atop her damaged armor, the depressions filling in and strengthening her with resolve. Tears spilled, but quickly evaporated in the knowing that the path before her, though flooded with sludge, was solid.
With each step her load lightened and the curve of her back disappeared. Instead of studying the ground before her, seeing only the small section of the path, she stood tall and faced the beast that now stood before her. She grasped the hilt of her sword, ready to strike it down.
Its eyes were rimmed with sadness, but could easily have been mistaken for anger.
She paused. The air stilled around her, quiet as the impending death, and with ancient eyes watching the slow movement of her thoughts, she drew her sword from its sheath and held it steady at her side. Her fingers twitched, anxious for a reason.
The great beast’s gaze slid down the length of the sword and held fast at the deadly tip. Its bristly hairs stood on end. It slowly raised its head, the sadness in its eyes replaced with venom that spilled over and trickled down its time-worn cheeks.
Her armor did little good when he looked at her in that vile way. She knew it was time. Time to leave the forest behind, lest he draw the light from within her heart that she held so close. One step back, one last look, before she turned.
“Why do you leave?” the beast roared, its pain-soaked voice ripping through the thin fabric that cloaked her soul.
She slowly turned, her hand once again tightening on her sword. Whispers penetrated her mind, a reminder of her strength.
“Why do you stay?” she asked.
“The forest is dark.”
“The meadow is light.”
They stood, face to face, bound together by time long past, a bond neither could break.
“I cannot go where you lead.” The words spilled from their lips in eerie harmony, entwining like the overgrown vines suffocating the abandoned forest they once shared.
She shook her head. There was no more for her there, and though she found a bit of relief, the sadness grew inside. Sadness for the beast who will never know peace. Sadness for herself, for neither will she.