There was no questioning if Milo was okay to run. It didn’t matter. If he wasn’t, he’d have to find a way anyway. That thing knew where they were. It was coming. They had to find the gate first.
He took Laurent’s hand and pulled. Waited for some piece of his body to protest. Nothing did. Not enough, anyway. Diffuse pain spread all along his back and down his thighs. He’d landed flat. It was hard to breathe. Not hard to move.
Laurent took a second to check the crystal. He took off into the fog. Milo followed as best he could. Caution and restraint were useless now. It was behind them. It was coming for them. It was gaining. Laurent and Milo were sprinting through the fog. Trees emerged and they dodge. Sometimes not well enough. It wasn’t long before their clothes became ripped. New bare skin became scratched. Leaves caught in Laurent’s hair. Milo was sure they caught in his, too. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. All could be fixed. Except being caught.
The crunch thud behind them had become continuous. Every sound happened at once. And now they could hear something new. Over the sounds of their own panting, they could hear the guardian breathing heavily. Snorting. More than a few times they heard an inhuman yelp as it hit a tree or a rock. It was as blind in this fog as they were. Small miracles.
The rest of the forest had awakened. Birds squawked as they took flight. Small animals in the underbrush scuttled away. Hiding was over. There was only running.
Laurent dodged too late and the tree hit him square on his shoulder. His momentum shoved him forward and he tumbled head over heels. Milo paused long enough to help him up. There was blood, but they didn’t care. They couldn’t. He tried to shake it off as they began running again.
“Where the fuck is it?” Laurent wheezed out. “Shouldn’t we have found it by now?”
“They never said how far!” Milo called. The pain in his back was getting worse. Breathing was fire. Maybe he had bruised a rib.
“They didn’t say a whole lot of anything! Just go! Find it! It’s in there! What if it’s not! What if we’re just some idiots they decided to sacrifice! What if…there!”
“I see it!”
Even without seeing the crystal, Milo knew. It had to be. What they were seeing made no sense. Far away, impossible to tell how far, was a square. A perfect square where there was no fog. Like someone had cut the fog away. Beyond it they could see the trees and the leaves and the sun. It shouldn’t make sense. There should have been fog in front of it. They shouldn’t have been able to see it that far away. But there it was.
The gate. It had to be.
Milo turned. The guardian was there, at the edge of what he could see. The fog behaved properly here. He couldn’t make out details. Just see a shadow, bounding at them. A large shadow.
“Save breath,” he shouted. “Run faster.”
The gate gave them their path. Highlighted the trees. They were free to run as fast as they could. Milo didn’t have to follow Laurent anymore. The crystal was only telling them what they already knew. He was faster, always had been. Without thinking he was in front. His only thought was the gate.
Until he heard the grunt and the thud behind him. Milo skidded to a stop. Behind him, Laurent was on the ground. His foot was caught in a root. Turning over, he kicked at it. Even some feet away Milo could see his laces were caught. Wound tight.
The guardian broke through the fog. They saw each other for the first time. It was the size of a bear. Even on all fours it towered over them. Brown fur was thick and matted. It had a nose like a wolf and large eyes. It saw them and roared, a bellowing sound that hurt their ears. All Milo could stare at were its teeth, yellow and sharp.
Its eyes pointed to Laurent on the ground, and it started running again. Milo ran, too. There was no thought. Not even in abject pictures. Brain blank, he ran. He was so much closer. But the guardian was bigger, and faster.
They reached Laurent at the same time.
Laurent covered his head with his arms.
The guardian opened his maw.
Milo punched the guardian in the snout.
To his surprise, the guardian whimpered and sat back. Blinking. It was everything Milo had but he knew that wasn’t enough. He’d gotten lucky. Hit the thing in just the right place.
Milo didn’t stop. If it had been the other way around, him on the ground with a fucked up foot, they’d both be dead. It would have been too big a miracle for Laurent to pick up Milo. He could count his lucky stars later. He swept his arms under Laurent and pulled. His back screamed. There was resistance as the root tried to hold on. Milo pulled harder and the root only kept Laurent’s shoe. He tossed Laurent on his shoulder and ran.
He didn’t feel the pain in his back. He didn’t hear Laurent screaming. He didn’t know how close the guardian was behind them, nearly at their heels. The only thing he knew was the gate. That perfect square of fogless woods grew bigger and bigger until it engulfed them. The fog was gone.
Laurent’s screams turned to a single word. “Stop!”
Gladly. Milo stumbled to the ground and half dropped Laurent. Exhausted, he turned around. The perfect square in the fog was still there. The fog did not surround them here, stopped in a straight line at the gate. On the other side of that perfect square was the guardian. Sitting. Looking extremely confused and put out. As they watched, it licked at its fur, huffed, and wandered away. The two sat in the shade of the leaves, panting and in pain.
Next to him, Laurent began to laugh.
“Did…did you really just punch that thing in the face?” he asked.
“I guess I did.”
He started laughing himself, painful gasps he couldn’t stop. Next to him, Laurent fell on his back.
They were finally through the gate.
I like to write, you like to read! We were MFEO.