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Into the Deep Dark Forest
"You can rest here," the paladin said. As usual his voice was emotionless. He watched as his short companion, Darf, eyed him and then slumped to the ground with a groan. Darf used the thick cap from his head to wipe the sweat from his pudgy, reddened face.
They were surrounded by ancient trees, giant conifers whose black trunks were girdled with green moss. Everything was slick from the morning's spring rain. The forest floor, a thick bed of needles, looked welcoming but the paladin knew beneath it still lurked winter's frozen breath.
"You are not safe here; soon we must move on."
Darf scowled and flung a handful of cold needles at the paladin's feet. The paladin towered above him as colossal as one of the trees, a statue in the forest with a face like a mask in which only the eyes moved. For a moment, sunlight broke through the thick canopy and caught the edge of the paladin's silver cloak which draped from his wide angular shoulders. Darf watched as an iridescence danced across the intricate brocade, proof of the cloak's power and magic. Darf shivered, but not from the cold.
The paladin stretched out his senses as far as he could, listening, scanning for any threat, but the forest was silent except for Darf's slow rasping breaths. The paladin calculated their chances. At this point they were more than halfway to their destination, a small village in the mountains, a refuge where Darf would be safe at last with the others. And yet the forest held the greatest danger to this mission: a single test they would have to pass to proceed. A confrontation was inevitable.
True to its nature, the forest guardian hadn't made a sound until it was upon them. All at once a high-pitched hiss filled their ears and a cloud of steam engulfed them. Poor little Darf crumpled again at the paladin's feet. The paladin did not flinch. The glow of eyes pierced the cloud and a massive armored snout hovered right before them. As the steam cleared, the guardian came fully into view: a hulking spider-legged beast plated all over, covered with the dark red of rust, and equipped with long horns and talons steel sharp.
"No one is allowed to enter this forest; I must destroy any that do," the guardian growled. Its voice was a rusty echo passing through worn bellows. The talons of a claw scrawled trenches in the ground at the paladin's feet. The guardian swayed its head from side to side. Steam billowed everywhere, but the paladin stood his ground. He knew the guardian had watched this forest for centuries, alone. He calculated that the momentary respite from the monotony that this confrontation promised would be enough for the guardian to stay his destructive force long enough for the paladin to make his case.
"Wait," the paladin commanded. A thin red beam of light projected from his chest, punctured the cloud and entered the eye of the beast. Still shaking, Darf could hear the low chime of communing electronics.
"Very well Paladin 415. Speak, if you think it will save you."
The paladin reached down and grabbed the quaking Darf by his collar and hoisted him up. The dopey fellow let his legs unfold beneath him, but he cowered in close to the paladin partially concealing himself behind the silver cloak.
"Before you stands a man," the paladin pronounced with excessive formality.
"A man? It has been an eon since I have scanned a man."
The great beast moved his head up and down on its long neck swiveling his skull to the side so that he could bring an opaque eye to bear on Darf.
"No… much too small to be a man. What trick is this Paladin?"
"I assure you this IS a man." The paladin pointed at Darf.
The snout of the beast honed in and sucked air in through chrome intakes. Steam chuffed out exhaust ports. The little man's body quaked. His only thought was that this thing meant to eat him.
"Men are extinct. I should know."
"Guardian, my Order is a… contemplative one. I will not bore you with the philosophical or ontological reasoning that led us to this crossroad, but we have determined that to understand our own nature we must study our makers. And so we have brought men back to the world."
"But this doesn't look like a man. It's a stubby, runty thing. Probably has half the intelligence."
"Not everyone in my Order was in agreement about how to proceed. There were… compromises. In the end we redesigned man to guarantee he would never again be a threat to us."
"Well, you don't have a real man then, do you?" The beast laughed. Gears whirred as it ratcheted two legs into place on either side of the paladin and Darf. It raised its head up so now it was looking down on them.
"Still, my brothers won't allow it. They will hunt your new men down as they did the old and eradicate the Order of Paladin as well. I will gladly join them." Steam sissed from unseen cracks.
The paladin saw one chance now. "And then what, Guardian? Will you stand in the forest for another millennium chuffing away until you are nothing but a pile of rust? What are you guarding and from whom?"
For a long time the beast stood still, calculating. The paladin watched, knowing the beast must come to the same conclusion. Without men, he had no purpose. Suddenly the beast's head swiveled around and he clanked off into the deep dark forest.
"Come on," the paladin said as he reached for Darf.
Darf eyed the ancient creature as it crashed off through the trees. Perhaps, he thought, one day he would return here, or maybe his sons, or grandsons, and slay this beast that was his enemy of old.
esullivan240 - Interesting twist on what seems like a fantasy till you look deeper. I guess it would be Sci-Fantasy.
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