Rawlin gasped in a breath of air. His entire body throbbed and his head pounded with a terrible ache that nearly brought tears to his eyes. He tried to move but found that only caused more pain. For a moment he wondered how long he had been stuck in this position. It felt like his body had been crushed under a boulder.
Slowly he opened his eyes, aware that he wasn’t exactly the same way he had been when he had passed out. The ceiling that was above him was not what he had expected. He knew this place well. It was Dio’s house. He was the only healer in the village that was any good.
Rawlin opened his dry mouth trying to call for help, but nothing more than a weak croak escaped his lips. He needed water, he needed help.
An icy cold thought hit him then and he gasped in realization, Ajay was missing. She wasn’t in the room. He knew that she wasn’t, she wasn’t even near by.
He didn’t know how he knew and at the moment it didn’t really seem to matter. She had been with him when he passed out. Had she already awoken and brought him to Dio’s?
No, she couldn’t have he decided. She didn’t know where the village was. How did he get here then and what happened to Ajay? How long had he been out for?
Dio came into the room yawning and humming a tune. When he saw Rawlin’s eyes wide open he walked over and smiled down at Rawlin, “Was wondering when you were going to wake up. Here, hold still I’ll be right back with some water.”
Rawlin smiled a bit at the irony, Dio hadn’t the slightest idea that Rawlin couldn’t move even if he wanted to. A moment later Dio returned helped Rawlin to drink down a few mouthfuls.
“I swear, whatever it is you kids do these days it’s going to get you killed.” Dio said.
Rawlin took a deep breath and with effort asked, “Where is Ajay?”
“The girl I was with.”
Dio smiled, “Probably ran off with your coin purse after you passed out on her last night. Did you know Havern carried you here by himself?”
Rawlin couldn’t help but frown. He and Havern had never seen eye to eye. If Havern had a hand in this, then Ajay was likely somewhere else awaiting a very different fate if she had even survived whatever it was Rawlin had just awoken from. He hardly even knew her and yet he found himself deeply concerned for her safety. Though she probably was more than capable of taking care of herself, she did have magic after all.
“Seriously though, what were you doing last night? I don’t mean any disrespect to the Guardians, but is there something that you all do to celebrate being selected?”
Rawlin’s frown deepened, “No Dio. It wasn’t some sort of celebratory thing. I think I might have just had too much to drink.”
“I didn’t think Guardians drank alcohol at all. It’s not against any of your codes or anything?”
“Only as long as it doesn’t impair our duties. The first night is usually an exception also.” Rawlin said.
Dio nodded, “Well, next time, stop drinking a bit earlier than you did. For a while I wasn’t entirely sure you would pull through.”
“Can I go now?”
Dio rubbed his chin as he looked over Rawlins body again. “I won’t keep you here. Just depends if you are ready to go yet or not. When you’re ready your sword is under the bed.”
With that Dio stood and left the room to go about his daily routine leaving Rawlin in relative quiet. Despite how much Rawlin wanted to get up and go figure out what happened to Ajay, he couldn’t move a muscle still. He was still frozen in place for the most part. Although he could now at least clench a few muscles here and there.
It was odd not being able to control his limbs. He would stare intently at his leg, imagining it moving in his head, yet despite his best effort his leg remained stubbornly in place.
A strange sensation struck him then. It was unlike anything he had ever felt before. It was like an itch inside his head, demanding his attention only to fade away. For several minutes the sensation faded in and out, at times he almost thought that he could even hear something.
Eventually he decided that it wasn’t important and went back to forcing his body to move. The longer he stayed still the less chance he would have at figuring out what happened to Ajay. Given how Rex was behaving last night Rawlin didn’t have to think very hard about what the Elder would do with Ajay.
Rawlin wondered how long he had been separated from Ajay and what would be done with her. Certainly Rex would have her killed, but there were a number of ways that could be done. Some were reserved for more heinous crimes, certainly, but he couldn’t help but worry that perhaps one of those would be used to get rid of Ajay. She hadn’t yet done anything wrong.
The sensation returned with such force and so suddenly that Rawlin felt himself go limp with a little moan. A voice pounded around his head angrily shouting his name over and over tinged with a bit of desperation. He brushed the voice aside, he was just imagining it. There was important things he had to be doing rather than listening to his imagination.
Rawlin! Rawlin you half witted scum for brains! Wake up!
Rawlin shook his head, trying to clear his mind, but the voice persisted.
Rawlin, I swear to Saelu when I get out of here I am going to come find you and teach you a lesson. Wake up!
Go away, Rawlin thought, I am busy.
The voice in his head only grew more angry, Rawlin, I need your help! It’s me, Ajay! Your Elder is going to kill me if you can’t get yourself together.
Yes, you halfwit, it’s me, now can you start to at least make it look like you are trying to get up.
How is this possible?
Telepathy, part of the Ceremony, time to talk about that later. Now get up!
Rawlin frowned at the ceiling, But I can’t move.
You only think that. Just do it.
Again Rawlin focused on moving, doubtful that he could. But to his surprise his body finally responded with a sore stiffness. He couldn’t help but smile, it felt good to move his joints after so long.
Great, Ajay said, So glad you can move again, must feel great. Now, get your sword and come help me.
Rawlin ducked under the bed and retrieved his sword from where Dio said it was. He strapped the belt around his waist, hanging the hilt at his left hip and then wrapped his blue Guardian sash over the belt leaving the extra cloth hanging just in front of his sword. He wondered what could possibly be happening to make Ajay sound so panicked.
I am at the temple by the Gate. Please hurry, Ajay said.
He almost asked her what the rush was but thought it was in poor taste.
It was a fairly nice day out actually, despite the fact that he was sore and tired. The sun was shining warmly and there were birds chirping amongst the trees. The path to the temple was fairly easy to traverse, if not long. From time to time he could feel Ajay check in on his progress. Her presence in his mind was strange, making him feel as though someone was watching over his shoulder, even though he was completely alone.
Think you could walk any faster? she asked.
Would you rather I be tired when I arrive? Hard to defend yourself when you are out of breath.
Ajay paused, but he could feel her annoyance through the mental link, Fine, just don’t expect there to be much of me left by the time you get here.
Rawlin frowned, Don’t you have magic you can use?
I don’t want to use it because I want everyone to know I mean no harm.
You have a right to defend yourself from them.
Are they not your betters though? Ajay asked.
Does it make a difference?
Ajay fell quiet for a bit, Just hurry.
Rawlin increased his pace a bit, he was only a few more minutes away. Mostly he was trying to think of what he could say or do to get her away from Rex and Havern. There would likely be others there that he would have to deal with but so long as they were Guardians he had a few ideas. Elder Rex and Havern would be the most troublesome, though he expected that they would still respond to reason.
It would have been much more difficult had he not been a Guardian. This was one of the rare times he appreciated his Father’s teachings of the way Guardians functioned and the rules they adhered to. Ajay was his responsibility as he had been the first to deal with her. The other Guardians had to respect his wishes regarding her. Even Elder Rex would have to bow his head eventually, even if Rawlin was newly chosen as a Guardian.
The temple finally appeared around a final bend in the path and Rawlin ran the last few hundred feet to get there. At the entrance two other Guardians stood leaning against the wall of the temple. When they saw Rawlin approaching they straightened up and widened their stance.
“Brothers,” Rawlin called, “Why the aggressiveness?”
“You aren’t welcome in the temple.” One of them said.
“That so? I seem to recall that I have a responsibility to check on the Gate whenever I feel it’s necessary.”
“Now it isn’t necessary. The Gate is well looked after.”
Rawlin crossed his arms and planted himself before them. “My recollection is that no Guardian can deny another entrance to the temple.”
Both men frowned, “This time is different Rawlin and you know very well why. Leave this to the Elder.”
“Since when is it that we are to leave anything to an Elder, especially matters concerning the Gate?”
“We will not say it again Rawlin, leave now.”
“I won’t, this is my responsibility, I was there when the Gate opened and I was there when the girl came through. She is my burden and my responsibility to look after. That is the way things are and you are overstepping your boundaries by denying my right as a Guardian.”
A terse moment passed, from inside the temple Rawlin could hear a muffled thump followed by groaning. Someone shouted something he couldn’t understand. The sounds only made him more determined. He gave each Guardian an intense glare considering who he would have to attack first. Probably the larger of the two.
Finally they let out a sigh, “Your responsibility Rawlin, if she hurts anyone, it comes out of your hide. Understand?”
“I know the code,” Rawlin shot back.
With that he strode into the temple, his footsteps echoed around the empty chambers within and the sounds coming from the central room stopped rather abruptly.
Havern stepped into the main hallway at the entrance to the main chamber, wearing a fierce scowl.
“Get out of my way Havern.” Rawlin demanded.
“I don’t think so Rawlin. It was a desperate move to select you to be a Guardian, hasn’t even been a single day yet and you have already messed it up. Just like everything else you do.”
“I’ve beaten you before Havern, what makes you think I can’t now? Get out of my way.”
“No. Elder Rex is going to handle this like you should have done last night. Then you will bury the body when we are done.”
Rawlin crossed his arms and returned Havern’s scowl, “I am claiming her as my charge. I was there when she came through the Gate. By our code, she is mine to deal with and mine alone.”
“That’s rich,” Havern sneered, “You think that I am going to step aside because of the Guardian code?”
“I am demanding you step aside. You know the code as well as I do, if you don’t step aside I have every right to kill you right now.”
“You couldn’t do that. You’re too scared to kill me.”
Rawlin drew his sword brandishing it before him, “Are you willing to bet your life on it?”
“I am only doing what Elder Rex has asked of me.”
“Doesn’t matter, we don’t answer to the Elders. Only to ourselves. I am going to ask only once more Havern.”
Havern eyed Rawlins blade, “Fine. But on my life, if harm comes from this, you will be the first to pay.”
With that Havern stepped aside and let Rawlin into the main Chamber.
Elder Rex stood over Ajay panting, his bald head a beat red color from exertion. One hand was clenched into a fist, and in the other was a rope tied to Ajay’s wrists. Two more Guardians stood by watching, each had their swords drawn and a fierce look on their face.
Rex looked up at Rawlin, “Ah so good of you to join us. Two problems in one room. Much easier to clean up.”
“Step away from her Rex.”
Rex cocked his head, “Did I just hear concern from you?”
Rawlin held his ground but remained silent.
Rex chuckled, “I did hear concern. Well, that’s good then. You’ll be glad to know that Ajay and I have gotten to know each other pretty well. Been going at this since sunrise at least.”
Rawlin looked to the two Guardians by the Gate with their swords out, “Brothers, do you not see that this is wrong? The first Trax to come to our lands in ages and we treat her to a beating?”
“Don’t worry about them Rawlin,” Rex hissed, “You should worry about me.”
With that Rex yanked harshly on the rope causing Ajay to let out a yelp.
“Honestly Rawlin, you just swore to the duties of a Guardian last night. I thought you would have a better understanding of what that meant.” Rex said as he handed the rope to one of the Guardians. “You see, the Guardians sole purpose is to look after the Gate. When the Gods created it, they charged us with protecting it and killing whatever came through.”
Rawlin shook his head, “You’re wrong. We are meant only to protect the Gate from abuse. Our codes and oaths say nothing about killing those who travel through the Gate.”
“She is Trax, isn’t that cause enough?” Rex asked.
“No, and it never will be. Now hand her over and leave. You don’t belong here.”
Rex smiled and walked to where Ajay lay on the ground and kicked viciously at her, “Hear that? Hear her pain? That’s what you are going to sound like once I am done with her.”
Rawlin raised his voice, “She is my charge Rex. You don’t have the authority or the right to do this. I have every right to kill you where you stand. You are interfering with my duty as a Guardian and I am being gracious enough to allow you to choose to leave.”
For a moment Rex looked past Rawlin towards Havern standing at the entrance. Rex took a deep breath and then let it out. “Alright, fine, you win Rawlin. You are right.” Rex motioned to the other two Guardians, “Let’s go. Rawlin here has everything figured out. He knows the rules if he fails.”
The two Guardians sheathed their blades and the one with the rope forcibly shoved it into Rawlins hands. Then they left stopping only to cast back an occasional glare.
When the room was finally empty Rawlin turned his attention to Ajay. She lay on the floor still curled up tight grasping at her stomach. There were a few spots where he could see breaks in her skin from what Rex had done. Shame flooded through him. The first Trax to come to the land in a very long time and his people beat her to a pulp. They were supposed to be better than this.
Kneeling down next to her he gently drew her hands out and undid the bindings around her wrists. Her trembling hands only served to make him feel all the worse. “I’m so sorry Ajay.” he heard himself say.
He didn’t understand why she hadn’t fought back. It wasn’t as though she was incapable of doing so. She had just chosen not to and it baffled him. Every rule or law he knew of said that she had a right to fight back.
“Are they gone?” Ajay asked weakly.
“Yes, they left. Can you sit up?”
Ajay managed to push herself up, “I’m glad you could come join the fun. Did you have a nice walk here?”
“I should have hurried like you said. I didn’t think they would do this.”
“The Trax would have given me worse had I not been able to make it through the Gate. Do you have any water?”
Rawlin frowned, he hadn’t grabbed much of anything before he had left. He was in a hurry and hadn’t bothered to stop to grab things from his house. Ajay sighed with disappointment when he shook his head no.
“Why didn’t you do anything to stop them?” Rawlin asked.
“I thought you said they were your betters.”
“Not exactly. You are a Guardian. Guardians answer only to themselves.”
Ajay frowned, “You could have told me that.”
“Why would it have mattered? By our laws, you had a right to fight back the moment they started to hurt you. Besides you have magic, couldn’t you have just kept them away from you with it?”
“It is a bit more complicated than you suggest. Besides, they are just scared, they don’t understand why I am here and they are afraid that my presence means that the their world is going to change.”
Rawlin ran a hand through his hair, “That doesn’t excuse their behavior.”
Ajay shrugged, “I would have received worse from my people for trying to get through the Gate. I may yet still receive that punishment.”
“I thought they wanted you to go through the Gate.”
“Not everyone was comfortable with the idea. Just the family that I grew up under.”
Silence hung in the air for a moment, Rawlin was trying to think of what to do. He didn’t feel comfortable taking Ajay back to his place, not when Elder Rex or Havern were so close. Dio’s place was an option but Rawlin didn’t want to get Dio in trouble with Rex.
“Rawlin.” Ajay said, interrupting his thoughts.
“They want to kill all of my people, or destroy the Gate so we are forever locked away.”
“How could they possibly do that? The Gods put the Gate there, only they could remove it.”
Ajay gave him a pointed look, “People said the same thing about opening the Gate and yet here I am.”
“Do you really think they could do that though?”
“Honestly, I don’t know, but they are determined enough that they will find a way.”
There was only one person that knew enough about the Gate to know if it could really be destroyed. As much as Rawlin was loath to go and see his Father there was no one else who knew more than him. His Father would be fascinated by Ajay, he would want to know everything about her and how she managed to get here. It occurred to Rawlin that even he didn’t know why she was here. “I know of a place we could go to get answers,” he said, “But I need to know something first.”
Ajay gave him an expectant look.
“Why are you here?”
Ajay laughed a little, the pleasant sound made him smile in-spite of himself, “That is a very long story.”
“Well, we don’t have time at the moment, Rex could come back with more people. Do you have a short version?”
“Sure, I will leave out all the important parts. I am here because the Raxja family and our Emperor, Draxan, wants to open the Gate long enough to get enough warriors through to claim this valley and your people as his own. It’s my duty to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”
Rawlin nodded, he would need to remember to ask her for more detail later. “And what about this telepathy thing? What is it exactly?”
“Again, you’re asking questions with long answers.”
“And? I need to know at least some of what is going don’t I?”
Ajay let out a sigh, “You’re right, just means I will have to explain things in more detail later. Long story short, the telepathy is one of the perks of being paired like we are. We can share our thoughts at will.”
“The only one I read was that it is limited by distance mostly.”
Rawlin nodded and stood, he was starting to feel anxious about being here. At any moment he could picture Rex and Havern charging in with weapons drawn.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
Ajay rose shakily to her feet, “Just swear you will catch me if I fall.”
Rawlin nodded, “First we need to get you a blue Guardian sash and then we can get out of here.”
“Why do I need a sash?”
“Because, it is what Guardians wear. Are we not Guardians of Otium now?”
Ajay frowned but consented anyways. Rawlin led her out of the temple and to the Guardians building. He had her hide in some trees while he went in and got a sash from where they were stored. When he returned Ajay grudgingly tied it around her hips, “I look ridiculous, blue is not a good color.”
“The man we are going to see will care about nothing else except that. You wear that sash and you will instantly command his respect.”
Ajay scoffed, “You humans are very strange. Clothing shouldn’t earn you respect. Why should we go to this man anyways?”
“Because,” Rawlin answered simply, “If anyone knows how to destroy the Gate, it’s him.”