This story is by Rubis Adams and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A rangy figure runs across the dusty badland, high-flying elbows giving way to tightly fisted hands and an equally taut sneer curled over sharp features. I’ve got you now, Percy thinks. I’ve got you! He slides to a near stop as he reaches the decaying ranch’s elongated shadow, creeping along the wall and unholstering an ion schofield polished by use. A quick look over a windowsill littered with bugs reveals his target hunched over a map. Percy turns the corner, shuffles to the ranch’s splintered door hanging halfway off its hinges, peeling red paint streaked with rot. You live like this? Percy delights at the quip, opens his mouth to make it.
“There’s no need to knock. I don’t think the door can take it.”
Percy turns around with a yelp and almost catches a mouthful of gun barrel as he comes face to face with his adversary.
“Oh, it’s you again,” Riku scowls, lowering his pistol.
“That’s right,” Percy says smugly, gun raised high. “Thought I wouldn’t catch you this time, didn’t you?”
“I’d hoped you’d’ve moved on already.”
“Moved on,” Percy mocks. “Are you serious?”
“Moved on, blue eyes. Get a hobby or something. A life.”
“What? No way, mullet. We’re sworn enemies!”
“Sworn en-” Riku pinches the bridge of his nose as he waltzes back into the house, through the door this time, followed closely by Percy’s gun and the man himself behind it. “That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?”
“No.” Percy’s eyebrows knit together. “No, I don’t think. This is the 364th lifetime that I remember, and everyone of them, as far as either of us can tell, has ended in us killing one another!”
The boys stare testily at each other for a long, silent while, dust particles entwining around them in the sunset light that pierces through the decomposing curtains and cracked, moldy ceiling. The house reeks of humidity, and no effort has been made to cozy it up, nor is it fitted with even basic amenities besides a camping bed and a rusty generator.
“So… This is how you’ve been avoiding me, camping out here without… anything? Anyone?”
“You remember this place?”
“Not really. A family estate, wasn’t it?”
Percy squirms under Riku’s dark, wet gaze.
“Something like that.”
Out of the blue Percy holsters his gun, eyeing the room with his hands shoved down his pockets.
“What happened here?”
“Remember last time?” Riku counters.
“Of course I do,” Percy says sharply. “You bombed me right into a black hole.”
“That was an accident, you going into the black hole.”
“Right! You slipped and pushed me through,” Percy ironizes.
Words are not Riku’s forte. They’re Percy’s, they’ve always been. He adjusts his leather vest, cursing under his breath.
“You and I, we’re not… We were… The black hole, it wasn’t you I was trying to lure in. It was the Sentinels.”
Percy scoffs, but at Riku’s chafed look he holds up his hands, inviting him to continue with a flourish of the wrists.
“There used to be more of them. A lot more, just as there used to be more of us. We’re Paladins; immortal souls in mortal bodies. Sentinels are the opposite, and they seek to destroy us, because only we can kill them.”
“Hold on, if we’re immortal, what happened to the other ‘Paladins’?” Percy cuts him off, air quotes and all.
“The same thing that happened to you.” Riku swallows thickly. “The Sentinels, if they get close enough, they can… Reach into our minds and, and scramble it. So that we don’t remember… what we are. But with you, it got all screwed up on account of the fact you were half dead already when they got to you, and you’ve been coming after me ever since…”
“What?” Percy croaks, voice breaking. “Ever since what?”
“Ever since Fall Point. That’s-”
“-this place. What about here. What happened here?”
Riku shakes his black hair out of his eyes, jaw resolutely set.
“We were old. Really old, and we’d been together for the longest time we ever got to be as far as I can tell. You were getting a little senile, in fact, no offense. But they found us, like they always do, and we were too old and tired to fight anymore so I took your hand and I said Lee…”
“Lee, I don’t wanna lose you again.”
Lee. No one called him Leland back then, just as no one calls him Percival now. And Riku, Riku’s name at the time was…
“Mu, I got you. I ain’t quitting you.”
He had held that promise until the end, not ten seconds later. He’s still holding that promise, as twisted as it got under the influence of the Sentinels. Riku takes a step forward, stretching out a hand, his habitually inexpressive face made alive by the anguish behind his grey eyes.
“All right,” Percy surrenders, stepping away. “You’ve made your point.”
He paces around the shabby single room, fingers locked together behind his back where he can’t see himself tremble.
“All right,” he repeats, “all right, let me process this.” His head snaps up. “How many of them are left?”
Riku breathes in. Breathes out.
“Just a handful.”
“So we destroy them. Then what? Live happily ever after?”
Riku blinks a few times, opens his mouth but no sound comes out.
“Don’t answer that.”
It takes a moment yet before words come back to him. “So you believe me?”
Percy shakes his head, not a negation but hoping his thoughts fall into place. “This, uh, this mind-scrambling, it’s reversible?”
“If the Sentinel responsible for it dies, yes. But I don’t know which one it was. They all look the same.”
“So we finish them all off,” Percy shrugs. “That would have been the plan anyway.”
“If these Sentinels show up,” Percy interrupts anxiously, “and if once we’ve destroyed them, I remember like you say, then… Until then I have my reservations.”
Riku nods, tense. “There won’t be long to wait. As soon as daylight goes out, they’ll attack.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Separate, we’re hard to find. Together, we might as well light a beacon, but daylight repulses them.”
“In that case…” As the adolescents warily observe one another, something passes between them. Something mushy and warm. “We better make up a plan, fast.”
When the Sentinels show, six on them in close formation, the Paladins are ready. However old, the ranch has been built solid. Steel beams have held up most of the ceiling and the walls as well for this long, such that a dozen well-placed explosives will bring the structure down in a messy, deadly heap.
“Steady now, we’ve only got one shot at this,” Riku reminds.
The strategy is the same as it’s always been; destroy yourself with the enemies so that they can’t get to your skull. You’ll come back anyway. If all goes well, they will not.
Outside, a Sentinel’s single, forceful kick sends the remnants of the door shooting off into the house, Percy plunging flat to the floor to avoid a shard the size of his arm. The Sentinels stomp in, massive blasters in hand.
Percy fires six shots in quick succession while Riku expertly triggers the explosives. A deafening series of detonations has metal ripped from wood, pouring with a ghostly wail as smoldering stubs of timber rain down on Sentinels and Paladins alike, then the beams themselves, cracking skulls and caving bones. When the dust settles, amongst the ruin, six identical bodies are pierced through the heart. Two more, those of teenagers, lie next to each other, broken.
From where he had been hanging back, the last of the Sentinels stalks away from the collapsed wreck, climbs into his solar pod. In a flash, it evaporates into thin air, like eclipsed by dawn itself. Hidden. Waiting.
…A rangy figure runs across the dense forest. It is mostly evergreens, the few deciduous trees with their amber leaves lined in a single row of fire like a scar zigzagging towards the river. Showing Silas the way. His arrowy chin bobs up and down with the force of his pants, cheeks flushed deep red under their umber hue and blue eyes alight with frenzy. The grove clears ahead, revealing a rocky trench that shoots into open air above the water. Sil jumps, crocheting the cliff’s edge and pointing his ion schofield at the man down by the river bank. Gotcha. He presses the trigger. The man flops onto his belly, dead before hitting the ground, Sil sneering smugly as he plummets into rushing waters.
Right next to the canoe. A hand grabs his own as he emerges, a shadow of a smile on the stony face at the end of the leather-clad arm, but the eyes, besides their steel color, are soft as warm butter. Sil grins.
“I got you,” Akiro says.