“Ugh, why does it smell so awful?” Lucia said, gagging as the rotting bear approached, “It’s not one of yours, right?”
I shot a mischievous grin at Lucia. “That’s right, my undead rot now. You better be careful, or you might end up looking like that maggot-infested thing.”
Lucia patted herself down in a panic as she examined her body before noticing my grin. “You’re messing with me, right?” She asked anxiously.
“Obviously,” I replied with a dismissive wave of my hand, “I would never create anything that disgusting.”
“You know I can hear you.” the bear growled menacingly.
“Oh, I am well aware,” I replied flippantly, “I just don’t care.”
“You want to test my might again, child?”
I cocked my head to the side and smiled widely. The air between us sparked as a teal flame ignited, spiraling into the form of a wicked-looking face. “I would absolutely love to test your might. The last time we met, I was still newly reborn. I was weak and helpless against your illusions, but that has changed. I am curious how you would like being trapped in an endless nightmare, reliving your worst moments over and over again.”
The bear rumbled a threatening growl despite taking an unconscious step back. Her stance lowered, preparing to pounce at moment’s notice. “I did not come here to fight you, Aurielle.”
“I know. You came representing the council. Did you draw the short straw, or did the others make you come since you are the weakest and most repulsive of the lot?”
Lucia turned to me curiously. “I’m lost. What is this creature, and what council?”
“Believe it or not, this disgusting bear is a Guardian Beast. I met it once before. It was not a pleasant experience.”
“Really!” Lucia recoiled in shock. “I thought all Guardians were pure creatures, protectors of nature and peace.”
“Guardians represent balance, not peace,” I explained, easily falling back into my teacher role at Lucia’s question as if fifty years had never passed, “When a great tragedy or monumental change descends upon the world, you can expect a Guardian beast to be born as a counter to that change. Most are nature spirits simply because people have a bad habit of clear-cutting large swaths of forest to make cities without concern for the balance of the world.”
“Then what kind of change creates a creature as disgusting as this?” Lucia asked curiously.
“Me,” I replied with a shrug, “Or more correctly, the empire I let fall into indulgence and decay. An empire kept from rebellion through fear of the undead monsters I create. There has never been another like it, and likely never will be again.”
“I would prefer if you did not talk as if I am not here,” the bear spoke ruffly.
“And I would prefer if you stood downwind,” I snapped back.
Lucia leaned over and whispered in my ear as she nudged the corpse of the bear she killed. “Do you think this one was its family? Do you think its mad about us killing it because I still really want to try bear meat? I’m not giving it back.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea. Let’s slice it up now. With our talents, we can cook a few bites of thigh right here before taking the rest back.”
“I can still hear you!” the bear said in a thunderous snarl.
“And yet you still stand there, watching us,” I replied with a smirk, “You can’t attack us, can you? The laws that give you life will not allow it, no matter how much you desire to rip me to shreds. Or, maybe you are just too scared now that I am stronger than an unarmed child. Either way, tell me why you are here and get lost. We have a lot of meat to fry up, and your smell is nauseating.”
The bear growled in annoyance but was not brave enough to do more than that. After several seconds of glowering at us, it lowered its head and spoke in a low tone. “The other guardians of this world have gathered together. They sense the coming crossroad that will determine the life and death of this realm. They offer you an invitation to help defend against the coming despair.”
“They offer me an invitation?” I replied with a disparaging laugh, “Can’t sit still any longer now that their own territories are under threat? Their arrogance puts even me to shame. They don’t even know what the danger is yet, do they?”
“Well…” The bear hesitated uncertainly.
I sighed in annoyance. “I guess it saves time that you are here. I was planning to visit the Counsel Grove to warn the Guardians, but there is no longer any point. Deliver this message for me. The threat they sense is the coming of the Leviathan, a creature big enough to eat planets. If it enters our realm, we all die. Humanity is planning to risk everything in one final battle at Starfall Valley. I offer my invitation for them to join us there. If any refuse, I will personally spend whatever time this planet has left hunting down the cowards, burning their sacred lands to the ground, and ensuring them a slow and painful death.”
“This… Are you sure this is the message you wish me to relay? The others will not like being threatened. Several of them have lived for tens of thousands of years and are far more powerful than I,” the bear said hesitantly.
“Yes, relay my message word for word exactly. Their power is worthless if all they do is rot in their tiny little realms, pretending to be lords, until their inevitable deaths.”
“Very well,” the bear said with a curt nod, “I will tell them.”
With those words, the rotting bear slinked back into the forest. Its figure faded like mist as it vanished from sight. If not for the smell, nobody would know there had been such a creature here.
“Are you sure it is wise to provoke the Guardians like that?” Lucia asked after she was sure the bear was gone.
“It is fine,” I replied with a dismissive wave, “Even if they want to refuse, they will have to answer my call. All Guardians are bound by the laws that created them. They cannot attack beings that do not threaten those laws, and likewise, they cannot ignore when those laws are under threat. They will join us at Starfall Valley whether they want to or not.”
“That’s great! I have only ever met three Guardians before today. What are the others like? Are they powerful fighters?”
“No idea,” I replied with a shrug.
“You don’t know? Even after all the years you ruled the continent, you didn’t come into contact with them?”
“I met a few besides the two I introduced you to when you were younger, but most Guardians keep to themselves. They hide themselves in layers of illusions and refuse to reveal their true form without good reason. They disguise themselves as common animals or sometimes even people. You could walk right past a Guardian on the street and never know their true nature.”
“Hmm, you never told me that.” Lucia mused thoughtfully.
“That’s because I knew if I told you, the first thing you would do was run out looking for one. I don’t need you harassing random people just to satisfy your curiosity.”
Lucia tore her gaze away from a distant bird sitting on a tree branch. “I wouldn’t do that!”
“Yes, you would.”
Lucia stuck out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout. “Do you really think so little of me?”
“Lucia, I have raised you since you were a child. I know exactly how you are going to react to this information. Just as I know, you are planning on catching that bird and any other random animals we pass on the way back to Dragon’s Nest to test if they are real or not. Do not act innocent in front of me. I may have been reborn as a child, but I am not as gullible as one.”
“I was only thinking about it. I wouldn’t actually have caught them.” Lucia mumbled in a huff and turned away. “I am adding one hour to your healing payment as compensation for keeping secrets from me.”
I immediately wanted to protest but quickly shut my mouth before speaking out. If she was adding an hour for each secret, I would be indebted to her for a lifetime. It was best I didn’t make her mad when I still needed her help.
“Fine,” I sighed in defeat, “But now that we know your talent works, you have to heal her now. I’m not waiting for you to finish eating an entire bear.”
Lucia bit her lip reluctantly and nodded. “Deal. Let’s go. I am curious to meet this new family of yours, too.”