The Guardian - Chapter Three
Sleep no longer came easily.
Peter shivered when he left the cabin, bathed in the darkness of the Rystan night. Overhead, the pale, heavy-lidded moon shone through the light clouds of the indigo sky. With the arrival of late summer, the delicious heat of the season diminished, dropping temperatures during the twilight hours.
Brisk, chilly air should have invigorated him and cleared his senses, but they did neither. The ominous news of Cy's impending end smothered him in a damp, suffocating mood of depression.
Since he learned of the news, Peter's mind was filled with nothing else. Cy dying was bad enough, but now Peter’s anxiety fixated on more self-serving concerns. What would happen to him after Cy died? This one fear towered over other worries in his mind, and Peter felt ashamed of himself because of it. Instead of worrying about Cy, who had been all things to him for as long as he remembered. Father, mother and friend.
But his thoughts were only for himself. Self-loathing gnawed at him as intensely as his fear of being alone.
Pulling his coat closer to his skin, Peter took the familiar dirt path to the lake. He followed the winding trail through the tall weeds rustling in the mild breeze. His destination was a grassy knoll sitting slightly above one embankment along the lake. During the day, it gave him a view of the waterway, covered in lush green growth against the backdrop of the mountain ranges. The lake was still, with only the mild lapping of waves against the embankment, framed by half-submerged reeds and floating water lilies.
This place gave him clarity.
At the knoll, he sank into the grass, lying across the mossy growth to admire the stars. Without a moon in the sky, he saw them twinkling with indifference at his situation. The tranquillity of the place soothed his troubled thoughts.
Why couldn't he forget the outside world existed? If he forgot that, being alone here wouldn't be so bad. It was pretty here. Shouldn't that be enough? And was he really alone? As if answering his question, an owl hooted its agreement from the woods. Many creatures lived in this forest. Some he'd seen himself, others he'd learned to identify from the tracks and spoors they left behind.
Besides, survival here on his own was more than possible. He fished and recognised berries and roots were safe to eat. There was freshwater in the lake and fish. Cy taught him how to live off the land, even if Cy made trips to town to get supplies. Those were just conveniences. Even without his uncle, Peter wouldn't be lacking in the necessities and would continue to survive, long after Cy passed out of this world.
Only the loneliness frightened him.
He feared it more than anything, no matter how much he tried to deny it. Being isolated and alone, never talking to another person again, terrified him. How could he stand it, seeing no one when he came home from a day's fishing and not listening to their stories? He'd go mad! What if he didn't stay? Did he dare leave?
This cabin and the surrounding land, familiar and safe, was his world. He learned everything about it because of Cy, what trails to travel, the best places to swim, and what the seasons would bring. The mountains surrounding the cabin protected this haven. What lay beyond was a mystery. Cy went to town using the river system connected to Lake Shima, but the trip never took more than a day. So the settlement couldn't be that far away….
Peter sat bolt upright. With his spine ramrod straight, he remained frozen in place as he listened to the source of that low snarl. A second later, the growl repeated and Peter knew, without doubt, it was closer.
Cy taught him long ago not to wander about the woods without a knife, and so Peter fumbled to retrieve the blade in his coat. He strained his ear to listen and heard the crunch of foliage underfoot. Something was moving out there, something with enormous paws and sharp teeth.
Bushes rustled, drawing his attention. Peter strained to see the thing out there, moving in the foliage. He glimpsed a ridged back through the leaves and twigs, but the night was too prevailing for him to see more. It didn't matter anyway, Peter thought, recognising the pattern of its movements.
It was stalking him.
A blunt muzzle poked its way through a bush behind him. Still unable to see it, Peter clutched his knife even tighter. His fist knuckled white around the hilt. As glorious as he might find the woods, he was not blind to its dangers. Here, some creatures killed to survive, and others got eaten. Peter didn't intend to be the latter.
When it sprang, the animal moved with blinding speed. With a second to register the snap of branches, Peter swung around and saw something black and huge lunging at him. Alert with fright and instinct, Peter flung the five-inch blade at the creature, aware that if the animal landed on him, there would be no fight. His one chance was to end the thing before it pounced on him.
Two summers practising knife throwing saved his life. The blade struck the creature in the forehead, driving into its fur and flesh, halting only when its hilt met bone.
The animal let out a short, abrupt yelp before it dropped like a stone in mid-air. Landing against the grass, it was a mass of black fur, unmoving. In the seconds following its abrupt end, Peter gaped at it with breath held, poised to run if it started moving. But the seconds became minutes and the animal, a tiki wolf he realised, appeared well and truly dead. Falling back down on his haunches, Peter regained his shattered composure before getting up to approach the creature.
Peter's knife protruded from its skull. Blood matted its fur where the blade jutted out, and the slow seepage reached the grass, spreading out in a crimson pool. It was pure luck that allowed him to strike such a fatal blow. Peter was not arrogant enough to believe his knife throwing skill was at such an expert level.
Still, he was alive, and with that realisation, Peter reached another watershed conclusion.
I'm not helpless.
Maybe he was young, and the world outside was an unknown, but when the time came, he could take care of himself. He could survive on his own.
Cy woke up knowing he was dying.
This time, it was no sensation of impending doom or the knowledge the eternal clock inside of him was winding down. Dying was a wolf at the door, demanding entry, now.
For the first time in his life, he experienced discomfort. Cy's body shook with unpleasant sensations radiating from his chest to the rest of him. Is this pain? A sharp jab of the stuff lanced through him, and he was gasping, fascinated and frightened at the same time. Before today, dying had been to him a concept. All things ended, even for his kind. He expected he would wink out of existence, like the flame of a candle burning too long.
He didn't expect to suffer.
Cy froze after he staggered out of bed and saw his reflection in the bureau mirror. He was aging fast. No, that was wrong. The energy inside of him was about to escape its confinement as its receptacle was burned inside out. His skin became withered as the moisture in his cells evaporated. His eyes were deepening in his sockets as his cheeks sunk into the hollows of his skull.
Not yet, I can't go! Not yet!
Cy reached the doorway of his bedroom and slipped through the threshold before he collapsed. Flat on his back, staring at the wooden ceiling above him, he groaned. The pain was excruciating! How did they tolerate it, these mortals? How had he not grasped its potency? His teeth gritted; he knew he had to hold on. If he didn't, every living thing on this planet would die.
Funny, he thought as he stared at the ceiling, how in dying, Cy could only think about how he was born…
We were born in the light, that glorious, radiating light soon to fill every corner of the empty void.
It came from the death of the Old Primordial. The singularity to which all matter and energy was drawn at the end of things. Upon reaching entropy, its last gasp was the cataclysmic explosion becoming the first breath of a new universe. We were born in that blast, riding the tidal wave of super-heated gases spreading across the reimagined cosmos.
We existed for no other reason than the fortuitous collision of space, time and energy during the journey of creation. Empty slates struggling to comprehend awareness, the expansion cradled us in its radiating arms. Through the miasma of chaos, we drifted without form because matter was still a concept. In the universe forming around us, we were its first children.
Others would come later. Those who possessed shape and form, who were fragile receptacles of blood, bone and spit, needing air to breathe and food to sustain them. Helpless and brief, we watched them with fascination and came to care for them. Not because of superiority but because we were much alike, save for the differences between flesh and energy.
And they were such good theatre.
Later, we walked among them. We shared their lives, often in secret because their minds were limited despite their boundless passion and spirit. We admired their fragile strength. They lived an existence we could not fathom, and they lived it gloriously in the flicker of their candlestick existence. Sometimes we even envied them.
There was always the temptation to prolong them, to give them a taste of immortality, but we understood the universal design of renewal. Above all else, the cycle of the beginning and the end could not be denied. Death was always the cost of rebirth. Our end would come too. When the universe shrank into the Old Primordial again, and the last star flickered out of existence, it would be our time.
It was the order of creation.
"It is the order of creation."
Cy muttered the words as he lay there, waiting to die.
Not yet! Not until he saw Peter. He wouldn't die until the boy was within reach. For ten years, Cy prepared him for the transference, restructuring Peter's atoms to be a suitable receptacle. Cy's consciousness, the unexplainable thing indispensable to sentience, was diminishing. Once gone, there would be nothing holding back the energy it restrained. Unleashed, it would rip this planet apart and kill everyone on it.
He needed to channel it, to tether it to another mind, one that was young and formed, reshaped for the purpose. Cy should have taken care of this sooner, but he'd held back, his heart impeding what needed to happen. He wanted to spare Peter, aware of what he would do to this child. This boy Cy loved, sacrificed without his knowledge. Now there would be no time for anything.
Before he breathed his last, Cy had to do this one last thing.
The loud, desperate croak woke him. Peter's eyes flew open, and he flung aside the covers to leap out of bed. Icy fear gripped his heart as he bolted towards the door, thinking this was it. This was the moment.
Since told of Cy's impending death, Peter was very aware of his uncle's condition. Watchful for any signs of deterioration, Peter maintained a vigil at Cy's side, never far away in case of trouble.
In secret, Peter prayed his uncle was wrong about dying. Cy gave him scant details on the nature of his illness, with only the warning it was coming. Perhaps Cy overestimated its severity and only thought he was dying because he was old. Peter was fooling himself, and he knew it, but he clung to this slim hope. Peter no sooner crossed the doorway when he froze in mid-step. He gaped at Cy in astonishment as the old man cried out, weak and frightened.
At first, Peter could not understand what he was seeing.
Cy was dying but something else was happening, something Peter couldn't explain.
His uncle's skin was withering right before his eyes. Peter could see it turning yellow and flaking as if time was speeding up around him. His body was deflating, eyeballs were sinking into eye sockets, skin and muscle was shrinking against bone. In the seconds it took for Peter to make this observation, the decay of Cy's body had become even worse.
"Uncle Cy!" Peter cried out, but the sound died in his throat.
He ordered himself, and at last his legs functioned. This was Uncle Cy! Peter would not let him die alone. When he reached Cy, Peter dropped to his knees and fought his revulsion and gripped the man's withered hand. At the contact, Cy's head turned, his milky white eyes searching for Peter's face.
He can't see, Peter realised with another surge of horror. What was happening to him? What kind of sickness did this?
"Peter," Cy croaked with great difficulty.
"I'm here! Uncle Cy, I'm here!" Peter didn't realise he spoke those words through tears.
The old man's breathing was becoming erratic, reduced to hoarse rasps. His bones protruded through flesh, revealing how sunken his chest had become. With anguish, Peter knew he wouldn't last long. He couldn't. Whatever was happening to Cy was reaching climax, Peter was sure. For all Peter knew, sheer will might be the only thing keeping him alive.
"What is happening to you Cy?"
"Peter, listen to me," Cy ignored his question, forcing the words out of his mouth with all the strength he could muster. "Peter, I lied to you, my precious boy, I lied! I didn't just save you because of your parents, I saved you because I needed you!"
"Don't talk Cy," Peter cried, registering the words in the face of his grief.
"No!" Cy snapped in a sudden burst of strength. He clutched Peter's arm tight, forcing the boy to look into the whites of his fading eyes. "You must listen to me! You must remember what I am about to tell you."
"Okay, Cy! Okay!" Peter nodded, placating him so he would calm down and not strain himself.
"I brought you here not just to keep you safe from the Citadel because I knew they'd be hunting for you. I made sure you're beyond the Emperor's reach, but the men around him will kill you if they know you exist. Promise me you'll be careful that you'll never fall into their hands. Promise me!"
Peter didn't understand at all. Nevertheless, to ease the old man's fears, he made the promise Cy needed to hear so much. "I promise Uncle Cy, I promise I'll never fall into their hands." Whoever they were. Still, Cy's cryptic words gave rise to more question. "But why would they want to kill me? I'm just a kid!"
"You're so much more Peter," Cy's voice cracked with emotion and he touched Peter's face with his other hand. "You made life in this strange existence bearable in a way I never expected. When this began, my purpose was clear. I knew what I had to do, and I had no regrets, but I never expected to care. I never thought I would love you. I am so sorry, Peter. Someday you will understand what I've done to you but never doubt I loved you."
That heartfelt declaration took the last of his strength and the life drained out of him as his head lolled back and his eyes closed. Still, there was one thing left to do, one command his ruined body needed to perform before all thought evaporated from his mind.
Peter tried to move away, unable to bear seeing his uncle becoming a lifeless husk. How would he face tomorrow without Cy? Peter's sobs intensified as he tried to prise Cy's bony, withered fingers from his death grip. It was only then Peter realised something else.
Cy's skin was getting warmer.
Peter's brow furrowed in confusion. It's impossible. How could a dead body get warmer? He'd seen animals die. Heat bled from the body at death, not enter it. Further to that, the grip around Peter's arm was ironclad, with the heat stinging into his skin. It was at this moment, Peter realised, the husk of Cy's decaying corpse was glowing.
The light radiated out of his mouth first and then out of every other orifice. By now, Peter’s confusion had given away to terror and the adolescent tried to break free of that sturdy grip with no success. The light expanded in a brilliant orb of energy, filling every corner of the room until Peter could see nothing else and the pain against his arm intensified.
Peter screamed in excruciating agony as the world became white-hot heat. The pain spread thought out his body, and he felt like he was skinned alive like the animals he sometimes caught for supper. Layer by layer, it excoriated him, until pain overloaded his senses and Peter took solace in the black.
Thunder rumbling beyond the ceiling woke him.
The darkness surrounded him, and Peter blinked to adjust his eyes, gripped by the dull ache that came with consciousness. For a moment, he thought he was still in his black sleep, but the discomfort proved otherwise. When he tried to sit up, his head swam as everything swirled into a vortex of images all crowding in on him. After a few seconds, his head cleared and Peter realised he was still on the floor, lying next to Cy's dead body.
Peter pushed away from it a little before noticing the splatter against the window. Outside, he recognised the evening sky. Had he been unconscious all day? What happened to him?
His legs felt rubbery and weak when he tried to stand. With unsteady steps, Peter struggled to the door, needing fresh air to clear his muddled senses. Cool air rushed through the doorway and invigorated him when he opened it. Beyond the porch, the approaching night was dismal and cold. Torrential rain battered the ground from ominous grey clouds.
I need to start a fire, Peter thought, hugging his arms around his body.
The idea of starting a fire allowed Peter to focus. He returned to the stone hearth and began lighting one using the kindling and logs stacked next to it. Like everything else, Cy taught him how to do this too. After several minutes, the same flames illuminating the cabin warmed the room. Only after that did Peter turn his attention to Cy.
Not much of Cy Axym remained. The husk his body was barely holding shape and continuing to decay, even now. Very soon, in place of a corpse would be a pile of ashes. Peter, who knew what death looked like, knew this wasn't normal. There was nothing natural in Cy's passing. Bodies didn't just light up or burn you when you touched them.
Cy admitted his lie to Peter in the last moment of life. Too late, Peter wondered just much how about his origins were true and realised he knew nothing about the man who raised him.
If he was ever a man at all.