"I don't think you're a monster."
He had no idea how badly he needed to hear those words until they touched his ears. But he did. He needed it. He needed, so badly, for someone to listen to him, to talk to him like he wasn't mad or a murderer. He needed to hear he wasn't a raving lunatic, that he was worth listening to. Because some small part of him started to wonder…
Somehow the doubts managed to creep in, despite what he knew. He wasn't sick. He knew what he saw. He knew what the Skeksis did. He had the essence to prove it. But no one would hear it. No one would look at the truth that was right in front of their faces. His own father would rather believe his son was mad than believe he'd been living a lie. Everywhere Rian turned, he found new enemies. In mere days he'd been hunted by the Skeksis, cast out by his clan, and become a pariah among other gelfling.
Wait, days? Had it really only been that long? He counted and it was true. Five days, to be exact. Less than a week ago, he and Mira roved about the castle, practicing their swordsmanship, pilfering treats from the castle kitchen, making Gurjin roll his eyes with their inside jokes and silly nicknames…. This time last week, Mira was probably plotting with Gurjin to play a prank on him. He could imagine those two snickering behind his back, whispering about whatever joke they had up their sleeves. Things seemed so simple then. Mira so full of life and Gurjin always quick with his dry wit.
And now, Gurjin awaited his fate in the clutches of the Skeksis while Rian carried what was left of Mira on his belt. How had everything become so twisted so fast?
But that Grotton… Deet was her name… She had no intention of hunting or hurting. She meant to help him. And he pulled a sword on her. He could smack himself in the face for that one. Did he apologize? He couldn't remember. If he ever saw her again, he definitely should.
She helped him regardless. It was only a campfire, but it meant the world to him. She looked at him without fear, spoke to him as if he were just any other gelfling, and when he gave her the flint stones, she did not flinch from the touch of his hands. The simple exchange had become so strange to him in the last few days, he had to ask. "You're not scared of me?" he said.
"I don't think so," she replied. "Should I be?" She said it so gently, he found himself letting some of the feelings he held inside trickle out.
"Seems like every other gelfling is. They think that I'm a monster. They're all too scared to see the truth, even when it's right in front of them."
That's when she said "I don't think you're a monster." The kindness in her eyes cleared the clouds of fear in his mind. The sincerity of her voice cracked the wall he'd built around his heart on his short journey. Her words warmed and calmed him more than any campfire ever could. In that moment, she seemed the one thing left in the world untouched by darkness. If she were someone else, if she were Mira or Gurjin, he might have crumbled right there, let everything out, released all the emotions pent up inside him. He might have done it even for her, if she stuck around a little longer.
But her mind shifted in a second. Inspiration struck her, somehow, and she was off like a shot. She ran off to rescue her friend, slapping him with confusion on her way out. He couldn't blame her. He would have done the same. If he suddenly thought of a way to rescue Gurjin, he'd have torn his own path all the way back to the castle in minutes and anyone unfortunate enough to be behind him would be choking on dust.
As he rested against a tree trunk for the night, he tried to keep the dark memories at bay. He'd gained far too many in these last few days. They swam through his head, Mira's murder, Gurjin's capture, his father's betrayal, his clan casting him out… He didn't want them now. If he had to live a nightmare when he was awake, he at least wanted some peace while he slept. He searched his mind for some bright spot in his recent memory and found Deet, the one gelfling who showed him kindness since all this began.
It was only a few minutes, a fleeting moment, but it stuck in his mind. Deet, the kind, the gentle, even brave. If only she'd stayed a bit longer. Maybe she would listen to him, even dreamfast with him. Then he could help her break her friend out of the rascal hole and together they could… do something…
Didn't she say she had a vision of a coming disaster? Maybe the two were connected. Maybe Thra itself was trying to alert all gelfling, trying to tell them something about the Skeksis. If that were the case, maybe their paths would cross again. And least, he hoped they would.
As sleep began to take him, eyelids too heavy to stay open and body too weary to go on, he thought of her and hoped her kind words would at least bring him a good dream.
As it turned out, he did see her again, but the reunion was anything but pleasant. And things were actually starting to look up, too.
He wandered into a podling village that night. At the very least, no one would recognize him there, even if he did stand out like a boat in the desert. The place was so alive that night. He'd never seen a podling village before. He only knew the podling who served the Skeksis in the castle, and even then only in passing. The creatures who worked in the castle mainly kept to their own kind and only mixed when necessary. Walking through town, he saw friends running off for a night of debauchery, parents trying to get their excitable children inside for bed, and some podling who maybe had too much to drink, but looked like they were having fun none the less.
He wandered into a tavern and was immediately carried into the joviality. Music filled the room and podling danced and drank without a care. The smell of food and brew wafted into his nose and nostalgia broke on him like an ocean wave. His mind traveled back to better times. As young guards in training, he and Gurjin would apply for leave at the same time, then travel to the closest tavern to drink and dance and flirt with the locals. After he started seeing Mira, she came along too. Their nights of revelry passed in a haze of laughter and warmth. So many great nights were spent this way. There was the time Gurjin started doing his best Ordon impression and literally would not stop until the next morning. Or the time Mira managed to pull him on stage to dance with the band despite his protests. They felt invincible then. They were on top of the world and the worst they had to fear was being reprimanded by their officers. How suddenly and horrifically things change.
In this little podling tavern, worries seemed so far away. One podling lady asked him to dance and another sent him a drink. He turned down both their advances and stayed on the sidelines, but watching the podling continue their party and enjoying themselves put a smile on his face. They were in their own little bubble of revelry and Rian found himself slipping in just a bit. He longed for a return of those days, but he couldn't fully give into that desire, not with the truth he, alone, now carried. Still, for the moment, he just wanted to blend into the atmosphere of this joyous place and forget.
His moment of mild contentment was cut short when he was accosted by two gelfing, Gurjin's sister Naia and her Spriton friend Kylan. He knew Naia somewhat from the few times Gurjin invited him to see his home in the Great Smerth and he knew she was fierce. She planned to trade him for Gurjin and he was sure she would be able to drag him back to the castle herself if he couldn't convince her other wise.
Naia's plans, however, were also cut short by a Vapran princess of all things. The two argued over who would be the one to turn him in and claim their recompense, Gurjin for Naia and justice for the princess. Rian managed to silence them both by showing them the remainder of Mira's essence. They stopped and they listened. He could hardly believe it. He continued cautiously, sure at any moment they would stifle his warnings and he'd be back to running, or trying to. But that moment didn't come. He offered to dreamfast. The Spriton was the first to accept. Then the princess. Finally, Naia agreed.
He showed them. He showed them all that happened: the spitter, Gurjin's capture, and Mira's murder. It was harder than he expected. It was one thing to remember, but another to watch it all happen again before his eyes. His hands itched to pull away and end these horrible visions, but he kept the connection. They had to know. Every gelfling had to see the truth of what the Skeksis were doing. Only then could they fight back.
When he opened his eyes again, tears soaked his cheeks. The others shed tears as well. Naia for her brother, the princess for her fallen subject, and Kylan for all gelfling. Then he turned his head to see his father, tears in his eyes as well. "Did you see?" he asked. His father nodded and fragile hope grew slowly in his heart, as if afraid it was not real.
"I'm sorry I didn't believe you, son," his father said, and the hope strengthened. His father reached out and hugged him, and Rian felt safe for the first time since this all began. He felt like a childling again. It brought forth memories of times long past, of his father helping him up when he fell or nursing cuts and scrapes. His father was not typically affectionate, especially not after Rian grew into an adult. He wanted Rian to be strong, though he had a soldier's idea of what that meant. But this moment assured him that his father, despite his flaws, would be there to support him.
They did not have time to dwell on this moment. Within minutes, they formulated a plan and split off on their missions. Naia, Kylan, and Tavra went off to rescue Gerjin while Rian and Ordon traveled to Ha'rar to inform the All-Maudra of the skeksis corruption. He and his father moved swiftly through the wood, but it soon became apparent they were being pursued. A knife flew at them out of the dark and a skeksis, larger and more agile than any Rian knew at the castle, revealed itself.
They tried using their terrain to their advantage. They were smaller and more able to get though the brush, but it was a temporary stall at best. Once they got a moment to catch their breath, they tried an old trick. They split up to take it at two angles. Rian put himself in the open and let it follow him, but the skeksis proved to be even more dangerous than it looked. It moved through trees with the ease of water rushing down a river. Rian tried to keep his eyes on the creature while maintaining distance from its attacks, but it drew attention away from his terrain. A fall down a rocky hill landed him on the edge of a patch of gobbles. The essence flew form his belt, but he managed to save it at the last second.
The skeksis landed behind him. There was no where left to run. The skeksis drew its blade and Rian drew his. Rian took desperate slashes while the skeksis knocked him down with the sheer force of its swing. But Rian got back to his feet every time. Lessons from his father echoed in his mind as he fought. Get back up. Push yourself. Keep going. Harder, faster, smarter, stronger. Hemanaged to lock the Skeksis blade with his own, but the gobbles snapped up at his heels. The Skeksis pushed him pushed him toward the hungry things, but Rian pushed back. Still the skeksis proved more than a match. Just when it seemed the gobbles would get a taste of his boot, his father jumped down from the sky and landed a blow on the skeksis' skull.
His father landed beside him and they faced the beast side by side. They fought together, in sync with each other. Every lesson he ever learned fell into place. This is what he'd been preparing for all his life. His father knew the time may come when Rian needed to keep fighting beyond exhaustion, beyond fear, beyond insurmountable odds. That's what he's done this whole time. His father's lessons kept him going all while he was a fugitive. They kept him alive and out of skeksis hands. Above all, his father taught him to fight for what's right, and to keep fighting until the battle was won. Now, they would fight together.
But victory, tonight, was out of their reach. They locked blades with the skeksis again, but this time the skeksis knew pushing would get him nowhere. They dug their feet in and would not be moved. The Skeksis landed a kick to his father's head and Rian was swept back with it. Blades flew out of their hands and disappeared in a haze of gobble teeth. Rian was blown back, but mostly unharmed. His father, however, was knocked out cold.
"Father!" Rian called as the skeksis approached, blades glistening against the moonlight, but he did not stir.
"Father!" he tried again. The skeksis hovered over them, blades poised to strike. Still, his father laid, barely moving.
"Father!" he cried one last time. The skeksis swung down and Rian stared up at the blade that was sure to be his end.
"Not! My! Son!" his father roared, leaping into the air. He knocked the skeksis off his feet and they fell together into the gobble patch. Both screamed as the gobbles devoured them bite by bite. Rian screamed as well; screams of horror and despair. He could do nothing. He was right there. He was a trained soldier, a castle guard. He was young and strong and agile. And yet, he could do nothing.
"Rian!" his father called with his last bit of strength. "Be brave, Rian." It was the last thing he said before disappearing below the valley of snarling teeth.
"No! Father!" Rian stumbled to his feet and rushed forward, no plan in his mind. His only thought was of getting his father out, though he knew it was too late. It didn't matter. If there was any chance of saving his father, the greedy things could have his life too.
"No, Rian! Stop!" a familiar voice begged. Arms grabbed him and pulled him back. "Stop, it's too dangerous."
He tore his eyes away to see Deet, clutching his arm. She was there. Suddenly, she was there. Why was she there? He barely knew who she was. Why should she be there for him? Was she simply that kind? That she rushed to help a near stranger? It was all so strange and confusing, but he didn't have room in his mind to question it further.
Her podling friend was at his back, holding his other arm. Together, they sorrowfully watched the gobbles begin to settle. He heard the podling whisper "aminya" to her. He knew a little podling. Aminya meant friend, but in certain contexts could also mean "angel." Maybe the podling was right. Maybe that's exactly what she was. A friend and an angel all in one.
The gobbles went still and any last shred of hope he had died. Everything inside him was full to bursting. Sorrow, fear, grief, rage, guilt all mixed and stirred inside him, threatening to spill out. "He's gone," he said, finally. "He's gone." The words came out in a gasp. His voice had gone raspy and tears ran like rivers down his cheeks. It was time now. He was ready. He was going to break down right here, right now in the arms of a stranger. Everything raged inside him. He felt he could scream all night, or possibly the rest of his life. If he couldn't scream, he would die. It was all too much for any gelfling to bare.
Then the gobbles stirred again. He looked up. A fool's hope appeared in his chest. Father? But as soon as rumbling began below the surface, he knew it was not so. He didn't have time to react, save to push Deet and the podling away, before he was snatched up by the skeksis.
"Rian!" Deet screamed, but the skeksis had already pulled him into the trees. Rian could only watch, a helpless captive, as Deet, his last hope, disappeared into the distance.