Mist thickened the air. Grav wheezed, his damaged lungs working hard in the thick, wet air. His nose and cheeks were numb. His lips had just enough feeling left in them for him to know they were cracked and bleeding.
The trees about him were solemn and compassionless witnesses to Grav’s plight. He was not the first human to get lost among them. The First Relic’s gift showed him the people who had walked and died here hundreds of years before. The Second Relic’s gift filled his body with the soft, warm, pulse that told him that Dandrien was still out there. That Grav was still being pursued.
Grav rummaged in his clothes. Past the yellow and orange wrappings and into the pocket of the familiar, heavy leather jacket. The jacket that wasn’t his. The journey it had started wasn’t his either. Not really.
Both should have belonged to his brother.
A sensation, like scalding water, poured down his spine.
“I haven’t found it yet, Dandrien. You sure you want to kill me now?”
“Yes.” Dandrien’s voice was close.
Grav pulled the metal hilt out of his pocket. His cold, clumsy fingers fumbled with the button. Once the button was found, a sword’s metal blade extended out from the hilt. At full extension, the hilt began to hum in his hand and the blade’s edge glowed a faint turquoise.
“You can barely walk, Grav. You fight and you die faster.”
Grav laughed a ragged, wheezing laugh that ended with a violent cough. “I have the Rememberings of a millenia. Are you sure you can beat that? Even your lifetime of combat experience cannot compare.”
Grav did remember the swordsmanship of generations. He’d seen the techniques in his mind when he’d bartered for the antique weapon he now held. But the muscle memory of those disciplined warriors did not transfer with their memories. It’s quite likely he couldn’t perform a thousandth of the skill he’d seen. But it didn’t matter what he could do, only what Dandrien thought he could do.
Grav kept walking. Kept wandering. If he kept moving, he might have a Remembering. And a Remembering might just lead him to the last relic before he died.
“We destroyed them.” Dandrien’s voice echoed through the still, frozen forest. “The first two relics. They’re gone.”
Grav stopped. His grip on the hilt of his weapon found fresh strength. The jacket on his shoulders–the jacket that wasn’t his–grew heavier on his shoulders.
“To be fair it was an accident.” Dandrien’s voice shifted like the mist. Close, but never close enough to touch. “The scientists tried to drain the relic of its power. Instead it exploded. They’re sure they can do it right with the third one.”
Grav pushed his legs forward. He had to keep moving. To keep trying to find the third relic. Maybe Dandrien didn’t know where he was. Maybe he was trying to goad Grav into speaking, so that he could locate Grav once more.
“Can you imagine the kind of weapon we can make with a powersource that lasts a millenia? If you wanted to honor your brother, or the millions who’ve died in these wars, then you’d help us end it all. With the relic’s power, The Contingent can end a planet’s worth of suffering with one, final weapon.”
As soon as Grav spoke the word, he didn’t need the Second Relic’s gift to know he was in peril. A net of orange lasers encompassed him mid-step. He halted just in time to keep from passing through the human cheese grater of lasers. But now he could not move an inch in any direction. The heat from the lasers wakened his numb skin. Grav breathed in short, burning, half-breaths, trying to keep from coughing or extending his chest too close to the lasers. His legs began to tremble. Months of exertion and fatigue led to this one moment where his body might fail him. Where his sheer will to live, if only to see more of the worlds not consumed by violence, would not be enough to save him.
“Only the most adept warriors have managed to last seconds in this trap. I’m impressed. But soon your body will give out and you will die.”
“I … haven’t … found … the … third … relic …”
Dandrien laughed. “I’d tell you to look up, but that would be cruel. Trust me this last time, it’s there. Floating above you.”
Grav fought a thousand urges to look up and see the relic. But the lasers about his neck and head would not allow for such movement. He’d be decapitated before his eyes could register what he saw. But he did feel a warmth on his back. A warmth, up until now, he’d assumed was the head of the lasers. Now he realized it must be his brother’s jacket and the emblem on it glowing once more.
Grav waited for something to happen. If he was going to die, at least he could know the final gift before he went.
But nothing came. Not an awakening of his mind or a strengthening of his intiution. Nothing but a calm assurance. Was that Grav’s resignation to death or the final gift of the relic?
Grav smiled. A motion that Grav’s face had almost forgotten how to do. He’d found all three relics. He’d proven his brother right. Maybe it didn’t matter if he understood what the final gift was. Maybe it was good enough just to have reached the end of his journey before he died.
“Grav … What are you doing?”
A blue-white light washed over the ground. Grav couldn’t move to see, but felt the source must be the relic hovering over him.
“Stop it. Grav! Turn it off!”
The light grew brighter. Grav closed his eyes tight.
“I’ll let you go …”
A scream–Dandrien’s scream–filled the space between the trees, echoing in ripples like the fog.
And then it was quiet and Grav dared to open his eyes.
The lasers were gone. As was the wash of bright light. The forest itself had changed, the fog retreating a hundred paces in every direction. The empty space revealed a burn mark on the earth several feet behind Grav. That must have been Dandrien. What was left of him. And ahead of him, at the edges of where the mist’s retreat, was an archway. An archway made of the same stone as the relics and decorated with the same symbols.
Something inside Grav knew what it was. It was a portal.
And then Grav remembered. Really remembered. The Loen, all of the people he’d seen, they’d all found the relics, too. They’d all stood here, in front of this archway. They’d all entered in, never to return to this world.
The relics weren’t just a way to remember the past; they were the way to escape to a better future.
Grav’s free hand moved to the leather jacket he wore. His brother’s jacket. “Thank you.”
He felt the relic above him. Felt the calm emanate from it. Felt that this relic would lead him to the portal. To a life only his brother had dared to imagine was possible.
Grav looked up.
ART CRED: RAFAEL L CASTORENA