Tormin trudged doggedly through the fog. His feet and legs were almost numb from hiking through the rocky terrain, and he stumbled often. But he would not let himself fall. He’d come too far and endured too much to die here. It had not been mere physical hardship he had suffered, though there had been enough of that to last him a lifetime. The hunger, the exhaustion, the wounds yet unhealed – they were not what drove him forward.
He paused at a rocky outcropping and leaned against it for a moment. “As long as one of us carries forward,” he reminded himself. “If just one man finishes the journey, we all succeed.” The last words were a stark reminder of how lonely and desolate the Tortured Path was. Ten of them had begun the trek nearly a year ago. Three days ago Tormin became the last of them to persevere. The wind picked up, whistling and whispering through the rocks. He could almost imagine it sounded like the voices of his dead comrades urging him onward.
From the corner of his eye he caught a movement, a quick flash of something dark and lithe. When he turned to look it disappeared into the fog, the soft padding of feet on stone the only proof that it hadn’t been his imagination. Tormin drew his sword and pushed his back against the rock, eyes searching. A soft growl carried on the wind.
“A wolf?” he breathed. No, nothing natural lived here. Despite the constant moisture not even moss grew in the Path. Where plants couldn’t live nothing else would, which meant this was something worse.
He edged along the rock, keeping his back to it and sorely missing his comrades. All the times they’d fought back to back to get as far as they did, all the times they’d saved each other’s skins… or failed.
Tormin felt the rock drop away behind him and spun around, ready to see some horrifying monster pushing out of a hidden burrow to attack him. Instead he found himself looking at what he first thought to be a skull. Empty eye sockets stared vacantly past him into the fog, but there was no nose hole, no macabre grin of exposed teeth. He took a step backwards and regarded it further. Gradually he realized the rock outcropping he’d been leaning against was in the shape of a giant, empty helmet.
The sound of padded footsteps behind him made his guts clench. Finding nothing when he looked, Tormin decided to adjust the field of battle a little. Sword still clenched in one clammy hand he ascended to helmet and stood atop it, searching all around for some sign of the thing that stalked him.
He found it as the fog itself began to coalesce before him, moving and swirling about until he could see the vague outline of a wolf standing before him – and far above him. The creature was huge. He had to crane his neck to meet its stark white eyes as it stared down at him.
“You have come far, mortal,” a deep voice rumbled through the fog. “You venture where few of your kind have come before.”
“I made it?” Tormin breathed, hardly believing it. “Are you the Guardian?” he addressed the foggy avatar, trying to project his voice so he sounded like something other than a mouse squeaking its last at a cat.
“I am. If you know me, then you know my purpose. Speak – why have you come?”
“I come seeking the Gods!”
A sound like thunder echoed from the rocks. Tormin realized the Guardian was laughing at him. “So do all who come here,” it replied. “Do you come for the same reasons? To seek their wisdom? To challenge them for their place of power? To plead a case for their intervention? Speak!”
Tormin drew a breath to steady himself. The Guardian’s words felt like a hammer on his heart, and the last thing he wanted to do was collapse. Not as he stood at the gates themselves. “It was written long ago that a man journeyed here and found the Gods,” Tormin explained. “That he suffered their trials and sacrificed much to reach them. In reward for his devotion to them, the Gods granted him a gift. I have come in the hope of another such gift.”
“You speak of Naro,” the Guardian mused. “His gift was Wisdom, so that he might help his people. What would yours be? Power? Riches? Immortality?”
“To help the descendants of Naro’s people!” Tormin shouted. “We have been all but utterly destroyed, unaided by the Gods even as we pleaded for their help! I would ask their aide, to somehow preserve my people!”
“A worthy request,” the Guardian acknowledged. “In times past it would have gained you notice. But these are not those times.”
The titan of fog turned as if to leave, and Tormin nearly panicked. “No!” he protested. “You can’t deny me entrance! We came so far! We bled and died and sacrificed, we followed observed every mandate of the texts! We showed our devotion!”
The Guardian turned its head, regarding Tormin with one pale eye. “I have not denied you entrance. You may follow me if you please… but you will find no Gods here to aid you.”
“I… I don’t understand,” he stammered. “This is the Gods’ place?”
“Then… they would hide from me? Is this another challenge?”
“You misunderstand. There are no Gods here to find.”
Tormin clenched his fists. This couldn’t be right. The Gods couldn’t be gone! “You’re a God!” he argued. “You’re here!”
“Am I?” There was another rumble of laughter. “I am merely the Guardian, mortal. Come what may I stand my post. You have your permission to enter. So come. Follow me, and see for yourself.”
The wind whispered to Tormin again, urging him forward. Forward he went.