.

THE THIRD GUARDIAN

Chapter 54

Auron's world was gray and black, as the ghosts of his hopes and dreams aimlessly floated past, mocking him. Somewhere in his mind was the understanding of what had happened but his pain was so deep, so all-consuming, that he couldn't force himself to return to life to face it.

She was gone.

His son was gone.

Everything that had given his life meaning had been crushed beyond redemption, shattered into a billion bits of nothingness.

His physical body may as well not have existed. There was only total numbness. At times there seemed to be someone trying to put something into his mouth but this was recognized only on the most basic level of consciousness. If something reached far enough back in his throat, he swallowed by reflex. If it didn't, he didn't.

His mind had put him into this state of almost suspended animation while it attempted to gather itself in order to begin functioning at some point in the future. Shock was simply a form of self preservation. The human body will go to great lengths to keep itself alive.


Raiel tried to close her mind to her close proximity to the drop-off of the narrow ledge on which she had been trapped for so long.

Where was Auron? Why hadn't he come? Something had to be drastically wrong to cause him to be so long in coming for her.

Maybe no one could get down here. Maybe there wasn't enough rope or something. Maybe they weren't sure where she was and were looking somewhere else. Gagazet was an awfully big mountain.

She really wished she could look up and see if she could determine her location, but she didn't dare. The overwhelming dizziness might cause her to fall.

Breathe.

Just breathe.

Just bre- - -

A sound like the crunching of boots on loose debris faintly reached her ears.

Auron!

He had come!

He had come for her!

A huge sob burst forth in indescribable relief.

"AURON! I'M HERE! I'M HERE!" she screamed between sobs of joy.

Because of the curvature of the rock wall and ledge, she couldn't see, but she could certainly hear.

Moments passed but oddly, there was no answer.

"AURON?"

Nothing.

Auron would have answered, would have called back.

It sounded like boots. Was it? Were the openness, the hard rock surfaces and the breeze distorting sound somehow?

She wasn't hallucinating; she was definitely hearing something.

Fear began to creep into her.

She stared intently in the direction of the sounds, now almost afraid to breathe.

She couldn't move from her present position – and it was coming closer.


Kimahri dozed a little but didn't really sleep.

Though both had been led to their sleeping places earlier, the Summoner and Sir Jecht were restless. The young Ronso's sharp ears told him that it was unlikely that either would sleep much, if at all.

Sir Auron still sat where he had been placed by the mountain guardians two days previously, unmoving, unseeing. Kimahri had obtained more soft skins and rugs from storage and had placed them on either side of him to provide more support. Tomorrow he would try to shave the Guardian's face; maybe it would somehow make him feel better. He had never handled a razor before but he'd do his best.

He sighed and closed his eyes again. Soon it would be time to start another day.


The Commander, Sgt. Dailon and Cpl. Dickson had put in some very long days mapping all of the land around The Rock eastward and for nearly a hundred miles westward. The hovercraft had been invaluable to them, increasing their productivity a thousand-fold.

They were now ranging out more and more to the north, mapping and investigating as they went. The enemies they had encountered were really tough, but so far they held the upper hand and all three fervently hoped that would remain the case. Thankfully, they hadn't seen the fliers that had wounded Auron so badly.

Slowing as they approached a thick grove of trees, they made a wide, slow circle all the way around it, just reconnoitering. Two small pools, a reasonable distance away, would make this a good campsite. The nature of the rolling prairie land hadn't changed at all.

Circle complete, the CO told Cpl. Dickson, who was driving, to shut it down. They dismounted and cautiously approached the dense grove.

Spread out but still within distance to provide cover for each other, they stepped into the deep shade. It was quiet and nothing moved. The soldiers checked the entire area carefully and found it to be fiend-free.

During the course of their investigation, they had come across a small black place on the ground that had held a fire in the not too distant past, and a small stack of firewood close by.

Sgt. Dailon spied something almost hidden under a small branch that had fallen. Pulling it out, he looked at it and handed it to the Commander.

Mikel looked at it then back at the sergeant. "Same stuff that Rin wrapped our meal packets in." Dailon nodded.

Though they searched carefully, they found no other evidence of the presence of Lord Braska's party. But, as the wrapper proved, this had been one of their campsites.

"Let's bring some supplies back here to stockpile. Mark it on the map, will you, Corporal?"

"Yes, sir."

Sgt. Dailon said, "Sir, may I suggest that one of us remain here while the other two go get the supplies? We'll need room on the machine to carry them."

"I was thinking the same thing, Sergeant. Either of you have any preferences?"

Sgt. Dailon grinned, "Well, I haven't gotten to drive yet today, sir - -"

Mikel smiled. "OK, Sergeant, you drive. Corporal?"

The good-natured Cpl. Dickson shrugged and laughed. "Well, since the Sergeant insists on his turn driving, I'm good wherever you want me, sir."

The CO chuckled, "OK, you go with the Sergeant, then. I'll make myself comfortable here in the shade while the two of you go do the lifting and packing. Got the tie-downs?"

A smiling Dickson answered, "Yes, sir. In the side compartment."

As he and the corporal mounted the hovercraft, Sgt. Dailon grinned, saying, "Yes, we know, sir: Don't wreck the machine!"

Mikel laughed and waved them away as he turned to enter the quiet grove. As the sound of the machine quickly faded away, Mikel made his way back to the campsite within the grove. He could spend some time with the memories of his friends.


Rin smiled as he opened and read a note in response to one he had sent the same day that he returned to the Inn. The response time was very quick which told him that a certain ship's captain was in port in Bevelle.

Hopefully, the delivery of his order would be just as quick.


Kimahri rose to begin another day. He quickly put things in order where he had napped, checked on Sir Auron, then went to his station to begin presetting trays.

Today, he was going to try to get the Summoner and Sir Jecht back into a routine. Perhaps that would help. None of them could continue the way they were.

He checked the kitchen and saw Kelyn preparing the coffee.

"Good morning, Kelyn."

She turned. "Good morning, Kimahri. Did you sleep?"

"A little now and then. I have preset the regular trays and hope to get Lord Braska and Sir Jecht back into a regular pattern again."

"Sir Auron?"

Kimahri just shook his head as his eyes lowered for a moment.

Kelyn just nodded, then said, "I'll have the coffee ready soon."

"Thank you, Kelyn."

The young Ronso paused.

"Yes, Kimahri?"

Hesitantly he said, "I just wanted to tell you how good it has been to work with you, Kelyn – and I 'preciate how kind you have been. The tribe can be very proud of the excellent job you have done."

Then he turned and went back to his station. Kelyn just stared after him for a moment, then thoughtfully returned to her work. Jai, Leaor and Ganah would be here shortly to help.

Kimahri returned to the main chamber of the Summoner's Cave and reset the fire, then lit the large torches all around the walls, bringing light and color back to the room.

He wouldn't presume to intrude on the privacy of the Summoner or his Guardian but his keen hearing told him both were stirring.

He returned to the kitchen to retrieve the just-brewed coffee and set up the big silver tray with cups and accessories. He had hardly finished when he heard Sir Jecht in the chamber. Carrying the tray, he returned to the Summoner's Cave.

"Good morning, Sir Jecht."

"Mornin', Kimahri." The Guardian's voice was still subdued and quiet.

Kimahri placed the coffee service on a low table and poured a cup for him.

"Thanks."

"Sir Jecht welcome. Sleep last night?"

"Maybe a little now an' then. I dunno. Sometime I think I can't tell what's real an' what ain't. An' I don't wanta think 'bout the real part."

He paused and his voice was lower and quieter still, "But we gotta get ourselves together somehow. I dunno if we'll continue or not."

Kimahri waited but the Guardian didn't comment further, so he left to retrieve a shaving tray.

When he returned and placed the small table with the silver urn of hot water and white towels in front of him, Sir Jecht looked at it a moment, then rubbed a big hand over his now bearded face.

"Yeah, guess I oughta shave. Ra - ", his voice stopped abruptly, then he swallowed and continued softly. "Raiel used to get on me about it."

Kimahri's deep voice was also soft as he responded, "Lady Raiel very special. Kimahri miss much." He thumped his huge chest saying, "Heart hurts."

Sir Jecht just nodded, his face grim as he sighed, unfolded a towel and reached for the hot water. As he completed shaving, leaving his usual intricate pattern of growth, Kimahri returned carrying a second shaving tray that he placed in front of Sir Auron.

Sir Jecht said, "Uh, Kimahri, I don't think Red's gonna use that."

"Kimahri know. Kimahri shave Sir Auron."

"Ya know how to do that?"

The Ronso sighed and said bravely, as he placed a brilliant white towel beneath the Guardian's chin, "Kimahri learn now. Sir Auron need shave."

Sir Jecht chuckled, "Lemme help ya out there. Not easy handlin' a sharp razor."

Kimahri watched attentively as Sir Jecht explained every step he took as he shaved his friend's face, then, near the end, held out the razor for Kimahri to finish the last little bit.

Kimahri took the sharp instrument, looked at it a moment, took a deep breath and completed the shave without a nick.

"Good job, Kimahri. That'll help him a lot." Clapping the pleased young Ronso on the arm, the Guardian returned to his seat and poured himself another cup of coffee as Kimahri returned the used tray to his service area.

After cleaning the trays and putting them away, he went to the kitchen to see if their breakfast was ready.

"Almost ready, Kimahri. Just a few more minutes," Kelyn said.

He nodded and returned to the Summoner's Cave and was glad to see that Lord Braska was up and had joined Sir Jecht for a cup of the hot coffee.

"Good morning, Honored Lord Braska."

"Good morning, Kimahri."

"Summoner sleep?"

A very faint smile as Braska answered, "Yes, a little."

Kimahri hurried back to his station and checked that the water was still hot in the urn on the last shaving tray and carried it to the Summoner. He knew that Lord Braska was too polite to refuse it even if he didn't really want to shave.

As the tray was placed in front of him, blue eyes sent the attendant a quick look that actually had a bit of sparkle in it.

A slight chuckle and the Summoner commented wryly, "I guess we are a bit scruffy. Thank you, Kimahri. You are most thoughtful."

He realized that Jecht's face was freshly groomed, then noted with surprise that Auron's dark beard was gone.

He looked at Jecht. "You gave Auron a shave?"

A small fragment of Jecht's former big grin crossed his face. "Me an' Kimahri here. Not bad, huh?"

"Quite nice. Both of you are very kind to do that for him. He will appreciate it."

Kimahri, very pleased, returned to his station and collected the low tables set with fresh linens and silver cutlery and placed them in front of the guests, then brought a huge silver tray that held all of the breakfast food.

Sir Jecht and Lord Braska looked at the food, each a bit surprised to realize that the food would be welcome. Neither knew when they had last eaten, though Jecht had a dim memory of Kimahri feeding him something, a soup, maybe?

The Guardian looked at the waiting attendant quizzically, "Did ya give us soup or somethin' a while back, Kimahri?"

The young Ronso nodded, responding, "Soup. Kimahri, Kelyn know humans must eat so make soup from book and feed."

For a few moments, Braska and Jecht just stared at him, realizing and understanding the high degree of commitment and care that those two Ronso, in particular, had given them.

Feeling enormously grateful and humbled, they tried to thank the blue-furred Ronso. Even the eloquent Braska had trouble finding the words he wanted, but Kimahri understood.


Raiel held her breath as the footsteps got closer and closer, her eyes never leaving the curve on the mountain wall.

Then suddenly a man strode into view.

His demeanor was as calm as if he was out on a Sunday stroll instead of walking on this narrow ledge. In fact, he didn't even seem surprised to see her huddled here on the side of a mountain like some forlorn, lost kitten.

He was tall – probably around 6 feet - very strongly built, a fairly young man probably in his early thirties. His chin-length, honey-colored hair was heavily streaked with blond as if he spent a lot of time in the sun.

Dressed in what appeared to be a long, cream-colored tunic over dark brown pants, a dark red cape topped by a mantle of the same color completed his ensemble.

Raiel had never seen anyone dressed in this manner before. He looked as if he had stepped out of an ancient history book.

He stopped about three feet from her, rested one big boot on a protruding rock and leaned forward as both forearms rested on his thigh.

Smiling brown eyes looked at her quietly.

Though on full alert, Raiel wasn't really afraid now but had no idea what to make of him, his presence on this mountain, or his calm, pleasant demeanor.

"Wh – Who are you?"

A nice smile cross the stranger's lips. "Name's Garrett."

Raiel couldn't help but notice the wide silver braces he wore on his forearms. Each bracer sported several streamers of red and yellow.

She didn't know what to say.

His voice broke into her thoughts. "Need a hand?"

She looked up into soft brown eyes that were still smiling and even held a touch of sympathy.

"Y-yes, I think I do. I – I think I fell here but I can't move."

"You can't move?"

Raiel was embarrassed to confess her phobia to a stranger. She looked down at her knees that were tucked closely against her and said very softly, "I'll fall."

Garrett seemed to be trying to corral a laugh as he held out a large hand, "Here. I'll help you."

She started to reach for his hand but quickly drew it back, closed her eyes tightly and pressed herself hard against the rock wall .

She gasped hoarsely, "I – I can't! I'll fall." She swallowed hard to keep her tears in check, her eyes opening just enough to glance furtively at the hated edge.

She heard Garrett's boots on the stone and was a little startled to see him kneeling beside her. "You're not going to fall. I guarantee it." And with that, she was scooped up in strong arms.

Looking down, all Raiel could see was nothingness beyond the edge. With a shriek and in pure, unadulterated terror, she gripped the front of Garrett's tunic with both hands and buried her face in it.

He was telling her something but she had no idea what it was. Her mind was completely frozen in stark, horrifying, paralyzing fear.

Time didn't exist in her world of terror so she didn't know how long it took, but sometime later she became aware that she was sitting on what looked like prairie grass. There wasn't an edge in sight.

Her breathing was still ragged but she tried to look around to see where she was. 'This looks like the Calm Lands - -"

Turning to look more behind her, she saw majestic Gagazet towering into the sky beyond its foot hills.

'How - - - ?'

Turning the other direction, mouth agape, she saw the stranger sitting, knees raised, arms wrapped around them as one wrist held the other, quietly watching her, his eyes still smiling.

Answering her unspoken question, he answered matter-of-factly, "I carried you."

Her mind, in a confused state, was trying to sort out too many things at once. How had he done it? It was so very, very far away. Days away. Had that much time passed? She couldn't think.

Then suddenly she gasped, "I have to go back! Auron! Lord Braska! I have to go back!" and began trying to get up, as if she was going to run up the trail of the Summoner's Path to rejoin her party.

Getting up and again kneeling beside her, Garrett began calming her. "Raiel, it's all right. You don't have to hurry. It's all right."

Raiel stared at the man with startled eyes. All right? How could everything be all right. She was away from Auron, from Jecht and from Lord Braska. She wasn't where she belonged!

Then there was the realization that this man had called her by name. She had no memory of ever telling him.

Then her fear evaporated. 'I have nothing to fear from this person. I can more than take care of myself.'

Garrett watched the change in her expression and an easy smile now rested on his lips. She was beginning to come back to herself. Good.

In a strong but quiet voice, Raiel looked at him steadily. "Who are you, Garrett? What were you doing on that mountain? How did you know I was there?"

He resumed his seat on the grass opposite her saying quietly, "We have to talk, Raiel. Some of it may come as quite a shock to you, but we have to give it a go."

Fear quickly returned to her face. "Auron! Is Auron okay? Jecht? Lord Braska? TELL ME!"

"Raiel, they are safely in the Summoner's Cave on Gagazet. Please. Try to stay calm and I'll tell you and explain as much as I can, OK?"

Wiping tears from her eyes, Raiel nodded, still alarmed.

"Talk to me, Garrett or whoever you are! Something isn't right and I need to know what's going on!"

Soft but concerned brown eyes looked steadily into Raiel's a moment before saying, "Raiel, things aren't the same as they were before. Things have changed."

The Guardian felt a sense of impending dread creeping into her heart on cold, icy feet. There was a slight tremor in her voice as she asked, "What is it? What has changed?"

Garret's eyes studied the grass beside him for a moment, then returned his gaze back to her.

His voice was gentle as he spoke. "Raiel, do you remember being on the Summoner's Path, standing near Lord Braska just before he began to summon Valefor?"

The puzzled blankness in her eyes told him that she did not.

He continued. "Just as he was about to summon, a fiend leaped toward him from a ledge above you. You caught a glimpse of it and just barely had time to shove Lord Braska out of the way – and the enemy hit you instead."

She caught her breath sharply as she listened, wanting, yet not wanting, to hear the rest of the story.

Garrett reached across the small distance between them and took her hand in his.

"You fell, Raiel. The momentum of the enemy's leap took both of you over the side. It was a very long way down to the ledge you landed on. It - it was a terrible fall with many outcroppings of rock and boulders on the way down."

Holding her hand firmly, Garrett's voice was almost a gentle whisper as he said, "You died, Raiel."

Raiel felt as if she was going to pass out. Her sight grew dim and her ears roared. She couldn't breathe.

Died? How could she be dead when she felt no different than she ever did? No, this is a horrible, cruel joke.

No, she couldn't leave Auron! And her baby!

Sobbing, she demanded, "Garrett, what about my baby?! Where is he?"

"I'm so sorry, Raiel. Your baby went with your physical body."

Her eyes snapped to his. "What do you mean 'with my physical body'?

"You're in your spirit form now, Raiel."

Her mouth dropped open as she stared at him. Horrified, she hoarsely whispered, "I'm – I'm Unsent?"

"No. No, you are not Unsent! One who is Unsent still has a physical body that it's pyreflies reconstruct. The fall was – was so bad that your physical form suffered far too much damage for pyreflies to be able to reconstruct."

Raiel's head was reeling. This was all too much to be learning and coping with all at one time. Surely she would wake up and this would all go away and Auron would be beside her holding her as he always did.

For a long, long time, she stared unseeing into the distance. Time passed but Garrett remained still and quiet, holding her hand as she tried to find her way through this minefield of horror.

Finally she looked at him and asked quietly, "So what am I, Garrett? I'm not a – a person anymore. I'm not Unsent. So what is left?"

"When a Fayth came to guide you to the Farplane, you refused to go. There wasn't a body for you to live in, so the only thing left was for you to live here in your spirit form until whatever time you decide to go on to the Farplane."

Raiel listened in fascination. It sort of made sense just as it sort of didn't make sense. She had never heard of this.

"What do you mean 'a Fayth came to guide me'? I thought you were either went of your own accord, became an Unsent or a fiend."

"It is complicated, but when one chooses to give his own life to save someone else, it isn't necessary to be sent. A Fayth will show you the way if you need it."

Raiel studied Garrett's face. "Then – my father - "

Garrett smiled as he finished the sentence for her. " - is in the Farplane with your mother."

That is the first thing he had said that she was happy to hear.

"Why don't I feel any different than I did before?"

"Your spirit form is the person you have always been. Your same good points, your same bad points, your same personality, everything about you is the same – except you no longer have a physical body."

Raiel frowned as she studied the yellowing grass beside her. "How do I live here? I mean, it must be different from being a – a real person."

Garrett smiled. "Yes, it will probably seem strange at first but you'll adapt. And you ARE still a real person, Raiel. You're just in a different form now."

Sighing and studying the grass, she replied, "I don't think I'm understanding this, Garrett."

Then she sat bolt upright as a thought hit her. "People won't be able to see me, will they?"

Still smiling gently, Garrett shook his head. "No. Or, I should say – most won't. Some get a hint, a feeling, or something that makes them aware, others don't. Some actually do see, though I have to admit that I don't know quite how."

Raiel looked up. "Will Auron be able to see me?"

"I don't know. Depends on the person. Also, it may depend on how strongly you can project yourself."

She just looked at him. "I wish you would talk so I could understand you. 'Project myself'?"

Garrett's laugh drifted across the plains. "Sorry. It's been a very, very long time since I had contact with someone like this."

Raiel just shook her head and muttered, "Now I understand how Jecht must have felt."

Garrett laughed again.

"Where will I live, Garrett? What do I do for gil? You'll have to tell me these things."

"You can live anywhere you like. Remember that the physical world will have little effect on you now."

Raiel felt totally wrung out emotionally and every other way that it was possible for her to feel. "Garrett, I want to live in a warm, secure place out of the rain and the cold. Almost all of this seems impossible. I want to be with people to talk to, to be happy with. I – I don't want to be alone all the time."

He nodded. "I understand. Unfortunately, you're going to have to learn and adapt to living here yourself. I can only tell you about it. I have – other obligations – that I have to meet for a little while longer before I can help you more and you'll probably have figured most of it out before I can return."

"You're going to just leave me here?!"

"Raiel, you'll be fine. You'll adapt and learn as you go."

"Will you at least tell me how to get back up to Auron?"

"Well, you can either walk as you did before, or you can project yourself up there."

Somewhat annoyed, Raiel sighed, "There you go again! How do I 'project' myself?"

Garrett had been preparing to leave, but settled himself on the grass again, as he chuckled, "You always were the one for asking questions. Okay, but remember that I can't be away too long. First, in projecting yourself, you have to - - "

And the lessons continued...