Amon stood quietly on the edge of the mountain. He simply sat there in silence, letting his legs hanging above the enormous emptiness that lied below. He had his arms supporting his body as he leaned back and gazed at the sky. The endless billowing mist that covered his vision reflected in his golden eyes as he absent-mindedly looked up in a daze.
He had no idea how long had it been since he left the peak of the mountain. He had no idea if he would ever regret that decision. Nevertheless, he felt it was the right choice.
He raised his arms and let himself fall on his back on the humid grass, never taking his eyes from the mist. He unconsciously rubbed the old iron ring on his finger, his gaze turning even more unfocused. The cold sensation it gave him was somewhat refreshing, but also a bit unnerving.
What would Lya have said about his decision?
He felt it had been ages since he first entered the Hellblaze Secret World, and he hadn't been able to speak to her ever since. Amon suddenly realized that he missed her. Ever since he first met that strange Sword Spirit, there was never a day that passed when they didn't speak to each other.
There had never been a day that he didn't receive her guidance, one way or another.
"Having second thoughts?" A cold, crisp voice suddenly echoed from the mist, making Amon's hair stand on end. Still, he somehow managed to keep his calm as he recognized the voice. Nevertheless, his heart was still racing from the sudden visitor appearing.
"I was wondering when we would meet, sir Guardian." Amon said as he slowly stood up, turning his eyes to the blurry figure forming in front of him. A tall man walked out from the mist, covered in white from head to toe.
"Or should I say it is nice seeing you again?" Amon said as he put up a smile.
The man's pure white hair fluttered unnaturally, seamlessly mixing with the billowing mist surrounding him. The sharp features on his pale face were further pronounced by a pair of icy eyes that seemed to peer into one's soul, making him seem more like a beast than a man. His thin lips were stretched in a cocky smile as he gazed at Amon with a rare interest.
"Heh, look who is being all cocky." The Guardian said with a sneer, not hiding the scorn in his icy eyes. He smiled savagely, showing a row of black fangs protruding from his mouth.
"I have to admit, though, I didn't think you would realize it so soon." Although he said words that could be taken as a compliment, his eyes showed nothing but derision, making Amon somewhat embarrassed.
"To be fair, your voice does leave a lasting impression." Amon answered. He had some suspicion on the identity of the Guardian when it disclosed the objectives of the Trial of the Heart for all disciples. That crisp, cold voice and that tone full of scorn were certainly unforgettable.
The Guardian threw his head back as he started to laugh. That unnerving gurgling sound was still there, even if less pronounced than before. Amon felt it gave the man in front of him a rather eccentric feel rather than the previous sense of abhorrence that his beast form gave.
Somehow, Amon didn't feel the pressure that the Guardian exuded in their first meeting. His human form was certainly more approachable, even if Amon knew it was nothing but a fake front. His instincts were screaming at him the same way they did when he first met the beast in the Trial of the Mind.
Amon could only imagine why the Guardian would give himself the trouble to personally preside over the Trial of the Mind. Maybe he was simply bored, or maybe he wanted to keep a close eye on the next generation of cultivators. Unfortunately, Amon knew the Guardian would never seriously answer his question, so he didn't bother asking.
Eventually, the Guardian stopped laughing, and his gaze turned serious. He perked up his brows as he looked at Amon, a strange light shining the depths of his eyes. In truth, he found the youth in front of him very strange.
"Can you tell me something?" Amon asked as his expression turned serious.
"Only if you answer my question later." The Guardian replied with a scornful smile.
"Were you the one that made those apparitions on the Trial of the Heart?" Amon turned restless, almost hostile as he looked at the Guardian.
"No. As you might have guessed, you made those apparitions. It is a special property of the mist. The whole mountain peak is surrounded by an illusory array formation. All I do is analyze the Nebula forming around the Truesouls of the competitors to understand what they are feeling, and pair that with their actions in the mist to make an evaluation of sorts." The Guardian explained.
Hearing his words, Amon gave a slight nod in acknowledgment. He had already faintly guessed most of what the Guardian explained, but he still had to be sure. Even if his fist would simply pass through the Guardian's illusion, he still wanted to punch him if he had been responsible for the illusions.
"Now is my turn, brat. Why didn't you seat on the throne? Why did you walk away from the peak?" The Guardian asked slowly, glaring at Amon with a rare serious expression. The sudden change in attitude made Amon rather taken aback.
"Well, if I have to say why… It would be because it wasn't worth it." Amon said as he looked the Guardian in the eye. "You said before that everything was relative. You said that if you took the time to look at an obstacle a second time, you might realize that there was nothing there in the first place."
"I simply thought that rather than an obstacle, that phrase applied to everything. It should be especially so for the things we desire."
"So, when I gave that throne a second look, I realize that for me it was the same as nothing. The peak is nothing but a barren, lonely place." Seeing the Guardian's eyes turning even more serious, Amon was somewhat flustered. He tried to keep calm as he continued to explain. "The price I would pay to stay there is not something I could afford. It would be a trade where I would lose rather than win."
The Guardian closed its eyes for a moment after he heard Amon's words. A grave silence took over them as neither spoke a word. The world seemed to turn still as both of them stood there, surrounded by the endless expanse of white.
"You know, kid, you have some interesting thoughts for someone your age." The Guardian finally broke the silence after some time. There was no longer any disdain in his eyes, nor any semblance of scorn in his expression. "Sometimes we only realize we walked a wrong path when it is too late to turn back. I would be rather interested in seeing where this path might take you. If you truly choose to walk it, I can only hope that there never comes a day when you look back and regret the choice you made."
Amon quietly looked at the Guardian, not knowing what to say.
"Now then, I believe it is about time you and I had a talk, isn't that right, Lya?" The Guardian spoke, directing his gaze to the ring in Amon's hand.
The iron ring flashed with a blinding light, making Amon reflexively close his eyes and turn his head away. The light seemed to break apart in countless ephemeral specs of brilliance that slowly gathered, turning into the figure of a beautiful white-dressed woman.
"How rude of you, keeping a lady locked away like that without even a word." Lya's scoffed in her melodious voice as she faced the Guardian with unfriendly eyes. "I guess some people never change, Hati."
"Oh, I am honored of being remembered by you, 'my lady'." The Guardian said with disdain, returning to his scornful tone. "Either way, I doubt you would have interceded during the Trials anyway. It is just that Nemeus asked me to go the extra mile to be sure the kid would make his own decisions."
Amon looked in surprise at the duo in front of him. Did they know each other? How? Who was Nemeus?
"Enough with this." Lya said in an abnormally cold voice. "What do you want?"
"I would like to ask you to take good care of that kid." The Guardian said while furrowing his white brows, showing concern in his otherwise indifferent expression. "I know you have your own reasons to do so already, but I still feel obliged to do this. He is a descendant of Grant's after all, and has Skoll's blessing."
Amon opened his eyes wide as he heard the Guardian's words.
"What? Who is Grant? What is Skoll's blessing?" Amon couldn't help but ask with surprise, his curiosity finally besting him.
Hearing Amon's words, the Guardian's expression darkened as he sent Lya a judgmental glare. "You didn't tell him?"
"That is for me to decide when to do." Lya said while averting her eyes from the Guardian. Amon looked at her with inquisitive eyes, but she didn't spare him a glance.
The Guardian's frown became even more accentuated as he saw that, but he didn't speak further. He looked at Amon, thinking about something for a while before he silently shook his head.
"The Hellblaze Trials are over for you, kid. Come, I will send you to get your rewards." He said, waving his hand in Amon's directions.
The space surrounding Amon started to distort, making him feel dizzy and nauseous. The world around him started to spin as an indistinct roar echoed in his ears. He tightly closed his eyes to try to fight back against the uncomfortable feeling, unable to pay attention to anything else, clinging to conscience with all he could.
As Amon's figure started to turn blurry in an unnervingly slow pace, the Guardian turned to the figure of the woman that was still quietly floating in front of him, ethereal as moonlight.
"Hiding things from him is not a wise move, Lya." The Guardian said, looking at her with a piercing glance. "He is entitled to know about himself and about you. How much did you truly tell him?"
"That is not up to you to question or to decide." Lya's spoke in a cold voice, her gaze turning hostile.
"Such stupidity." The Guardian shook his head, clearly disappointed. "You are not raising a cultivator, you are raising a puppet."
"Do not spoil that kid's potential with your selfish decisions. If you truly want to make things right, turning him blind and guiding him by the hand will never work." The Guardian said.
"You saw the things he did and the choices he made by himself. He has a peculiar way of thinking, but he clearly lacks the proper mindset or the emotional maturity to face the hardships that are coming for him."
"Are you done?" Lya asked abruptly, enraged. The air around her turned unbearably cold, and a crushing pressure started weighing down on everything around her as she looked at the Guardian with burning eyes.
"Those four hundred years alone certainly made your soul stronger." The Guardian said, not seeming shaken at all by her display. "Still, you lived too little, and know too little about how humans work."
He dismissively waved his hands, and Lya froze in place, as if time had come to a halt. She was completely helpless as cracks slowly spread through her body.
"It doesn't matter how much you try to convince yourself that this is for his sake. In the end, it is all because you feel guilty about the past." He said in a sorrowful voice as Lya's fragments slowly dissipated in the air. "If you keep holding back the truth from him and making his decisions in his place, he will certainly point his finger at you when things inevitably go awry. Worst of all, he will have every right to do so."
"I don't want to hear that coming from someone that willingly turned into Arthur's watchdog just because he was afraid of death." Lya snorted as the cracks in her body continued to spread.
She couldn’t hide the derision in her eyes for the guardian, nor the aversion she felt at speaking Arthur’s name.
“Oh, yes, Arthur. That incredibly arrogant man that decided the direction the world and cultivation should take after someone almost destroyed both. That awful, horrible man that didn’t allow the Natural Laws break apart and a second Cataclysm to happen. Yes, that Arthur,” the guardian raised a brow, sending Lya a piercing glance with his blue eyes. “What was the adage of the sword cultivators, Lya?” the guardian asked, looking at her intently.
“Say it,” the guardian demanded.
“Only life can raise a sword cultivator,” Lya recited sourly, meeting his gaze with challenging eyes.
“Good, you remember it. Now tell me, why aren’t you staying true to those words? Why bother raising a sword cultivator if you won’t do it properly? As far as I know, what you're doing with that kid is no different than what Arthur did.”
Lya shook hearing his words, and her face paled. Her mouth was open, but no words came out.
“We all make mistakes, Lya. I was afraid of death, terrified of it as I saw it coming my way. Skoll had been taken first, but I wasn’t as brave as him. Arthur knew this and gave me a choice. One last act as a soul cultivator before he severed that path forever,” the guardian shook his head and answered with a surprisingly dispirited voice.
“Here I am, stuck in this hellish limbo, caged to this existence by my own flesh and blood, having to accept a piece of the soul of a man that is already dead churning inside of mine. Still, I can sense the world around me, even if I can’t touch it,” the guardian looked up, pondering. “The days pass and I'm still here, still myself, despite not being able to say that I'm alive, nor that this is pleasant. But can you, of all people, criticize Arthur, or me, for it?”
The truth was that she couldn’t. She had no right to criticize any of them, as she was the same.
"Do you regret it?" Lya suddenly asked, restless. It was almost as if she had been wanting to ask him this question all this time.
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” The guardian’s tone was surprisingly soft. “Not for you, at least. I won’t give you the affirmation you want so desperately. I can’t. I don’t know if we made a horrible mistake, or if this was a blessing. For me, at least, the answer is not clear. But that is not what you want to hear, is it?”
“Do you regret it?” the guardian asked, looking at Lya in the eye.
Only silence answered him. Lya's body finally shattered, and motes of starlight scattered in all directions.
Hati, the Moonchaser Wolf couldn't hide the pain in his eyes as he looked at Lya's broken figure. He was seemingly talking to himself, reminiscing about his incredibly long life as he finished muttering what was on his mind before Lya's figure finally vanished alongside Amon. He couldn't help but remember Alexei.
"Can you bear another failure in your hands, little girl?"
His last words echoed in Lya's mind, making her heart clench.
In truth, the possibility scared her more than she would ever be willing to admit, because she already knew the answer to that question.