Snow, caught in a prism of light, cascaded through the pass, nearly taking him with it. The two thousand foot plunge would have been very unpleasant. He clung desperately to a rock outcropping, wondering why he had undertaken this venture in the first place.
Because it is the last one, the last Gate, he told himself. He swung around, his feet finally finding some purchase, and managed to get onto a relatively level ledge. He took a deep breath and expelled a cloud into the icy air. Air so frigid in fact that much of his breath froze onto his beard, made even grayer by the ice.
I am getting too old for this. But, it is the last one. He looked up through the crevasse, the sunlight almost blinding him. Pulling the hat low over his brow, he made his way up through the pass and, within minutes, was able to see what lay beyond. He knew it would be there: The Gate. But the sight of it still gave him pause.
The arch-like structure, made of a wholly alien metal, sat on bare granite, the snow and ice preternaturally giving it a wide berth. The air within the arch shimmered like a summer afternoon, distorting the glyphs and runes that covered its surface. It was by far the largest of the gates he had seen; a caravan four wagons abreast could easily pass through.
The purpose of this Gate was unknown to him. Why the mages would place it up here, on top of a mountain, was beyond him, though one scholar had suggested the Gates were created when the world was young, and the later continental upheavals would account for this one’s present positioning.
He sat on a boulder and caught his breath; the air was thin at this altitude. He flexed his shoulder and winced at the pain from the old wound. He was getting old. He smiled ironically and laid his sword across his lap. The large, well-balanced blade sat there, cold, silent.
How many years had he searched out the Gates? Fifteen? He?d lost several friends along the way. Yet, he knew they would be happy that his task was almost at an end. He took off the hat and smoothed back his hair, now almost completely gray. His face was lean and weathered, and his eyes were tired. He set the sword aside for the moment and pulled two thick packages from his pack. Each had a metal seal with a rune carved into it. Magic, no doubt.
The vista up here was quite spectacular. Beyond the Gate, the side of the mountain dropped away in a sheer granite cliff. Beyond that, more snow-covered peaks and valleys. The sun slowly began to descend in a wash of cold salmon clouds and lemon rays, illuminating the side of the mountain and making him revel in wonder. He wished he could stay, put off this last task. He wondered what his life would be like without this force driving him. Other people had their own purposes; he?d just have to find one that suited him. He would have to create a new path, he supposed.
He gathered up the sealed packages and trudged through the snow. As he neared the Gate he noticed the air warming, and he could detect the faint scent of lavender.
Lavender, now that brings back memories, he thought. There was a hint of melancholy, but it lasted only a moment. He placed a satchel at each base of the arch, being careful not to touch the metals or the runes upon it. He broke the seals on each and started to move away just as he heard the sound of steel scraping on stone.
"The last one, Lord Guardian?" came an old, familiar voice.
He spun at the sound and saw a man in furs and gilded breastplate holding the sword that he had foolishly left behind.
"The last?and the seals are broken, so there is no going back."
"No," said the interloper, not much older than him, but scarred and hardened.
"I thought you were dead."
"Thought you killed me at the Great Wall?" He shook his head and grinned. "The luck of Oran was with me there."
"How long has it been? Almost twenty years?"
"And I have finally caught up with you."
"To stop me from destroying the last Gate? You?re a little late."
"To kill you actually; finally."
"You?re a sad person indeed if that has been your goal for the past two decades. A waste of time." In the back of his head he realized the energy was building in the satchels he?d placed at the base of the arch. He needed to get into the pass before the Gate imploded. "If you want to kill me, can we do it somewhere else?"
"Here will be fine. Besides, are you so sure this is the last? It will be your final thought, that wondering. Now, are you ready to die?"
"You have my sword."
"Ah, the sword of Extenn Rhinn." He lifted the blade high above his head and with all his might brought it down onto the granite outcropping. In a shower of sparks, it sank into the stone, but not before the last third of the blade sheared off and landed at its owner’s feet.
He looked at what remained of his sword and picked up the shard of the blade with a gloved hand. It was still hot, and the quicksilver that shifted the balance in the blade ran out of the hollow core. It seemed as if it bled.
"You broke the sword," he murmured as he turned the twisted steel in his hand.
"You are next." Smoothly, confidently, in the manner of one totally accustomed to the arts of war, the interloper drew his own sword and began walking toward him with the broken hilt.
The smell of lavender grew stronger. Closing his eyes, thinking of all he had been through these past twenty years. The air began to vibrate from the satchels he had placed. A high-pitched keening filled the area and he wondered if he would be able to make it to safety.
When his assailant was twelve feet away, his eyes snapped open, his arm shot out, and the shard spun forward with incredible velocity. Before the interloper could react, the tip of the blade pierced the man’s throat and sunk deep, followed by a momentary pause, then he dropped where he stood; there was a look of shock on the dead man’s face.
"It was a waste of time."
The vibrations grew, as did the whining noise, and his time was almost gone. Ignoring the body and the broken sword, he ran quickly toward the rock crevasse from where he had entered the plateau. He had almost reached it when he heard a crack; he would not make it.
It wasn?t an explosion, but rather the lack thereof. A folding inward, sending all that stood where the Gate had been into nothingness. Just as he had leapt toward the crevasse he had felt it, felt suspended in midair and in time. Then the sensation was gone and he was drawn backward to where the Gate had been. Backward and toward the cliff in a rush of air into the huge vacuum that had been created. He had escaped the implosion but not the aftereffects.
He tumbled toward the edge of the cliff, past the smooth granite where the Gate had been. There was no purchase for his hands as he encountered the ice beyond, then the edge, and over.
His hand caught momentarily on a small indentation in the stone. His legs dangled free. His bad left shoulder and arm hung numb from the initial impact.
Face pressed against the implacably cold stone, it seemed he hung there for an eternity, before his grip began to give. He opened his eyes to look upon the setting sun, then once more to the granite rimed with frost?
He smiled as his grip gave way. Lavender, sunset, and frost?