This story is by Matthew Aye and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Blood smeared the uneaten half of Boyd Baker’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the last food packed for his journey. He sat on the edge of the cliff bundled tightly against the numbing wind. His lantern lit a small circle around him, but darkness stretched beyond the light a million miles in every direction.
His lantern flickered. Soon, its light would go out, and the darkness would swallow him for the last time.
Is becoming limitless worth it, Boyd? asked the voice in his head. Turn back now. Maybe you will still live.
“Quiet,” said Boyd to the endless night and the voice inside his head. He had never given into doubts before, and he wouldn’t give in to mockery now.
Rocks tumbled behind him, and rising to his feet, Boyd turned his body with the speed of survival. In one motion, he grasped the fading lantern, tossing it with deadly accuracy towards the sound. The lantern shattered into the frame of a man, or what might have once been a man. The Once Man screamed in pain as it fell backwards off the cliff.
A direct hit but a direct loss. The only light gone, Boyd’s world began and ended in emptiness.
More rocks tumbled from every direction as other Once Men closed in.
Struggling to see in the dark could only distract Boyd now. He forced his eyes closed, choosing the darkness. His senses rewarded his bravado, compensating in return. He slashed when he heard footsteps, stabbed when he tasted metal, and struck when he felt pain.
For seven days, he’d fought. For seven days, he’d pushed his body to the point of death, and for seven days, he’d survived.
His mind merged with the Once Men. No longer a man of tactics, he became a man dedicated to delivering pain until he could take no more himself. Snarling into the night, he joined the wind as an emotionless bringer of death.
The relentless enemy surged from every angle. The sword Boyd stole from one of the fallen days ago dropped from his fingers, his hand unable to grasp any longer. Weaponless, Boyd clawed, punched, and swung his head at the endless sea of assault, knowing each punch might represent his last act as a human being, another rebellion against every person’s inevitable destiny.
For seven days, he’d battled alone creatures too horrifying for nightmares. For seven days, they’d hunted him day and night. For seven days, they sought the end of his strength, the end that they’d finally found.
“I’m sorry,” said Boyd as he threw what he knew to be the last punch his body would ever throw.
His bloodied fist cut through the air, not finding a target. The Once Men were gone.
Boyd dropped to his knees, unable to stand any longer.
Could it be true? Could the threat be over? Had he passed the test?
A faint light flickered to his left, strange in the black as though not belonging. Boyd raised a single hand to shield his face as the light grew. He stumbled forward towards the light on top of the mountain, the light that shone from the entrance of a cave.
A voice whispered to him from inside the cave.
“I’ve been watching you.”
Boyd’s hand went for the weapon once at his side to find it gone, lost in the sea of darkness behind him. For the best, he thought. He couldn’t survive another attack. He’d thrown his last punch. With no fight remaining, he walked forward into the mouth of the cave.
“Who are you?” asked Boyd.
“I am that which you seek,” said the voice in the cave.
Weeping, Boyd dropped to the ground again. Had he reached the end of his journey?
“Many a man and woman sought my gift without limits, but only the dumbest survived into the second day. Only the greatest survived until the third, and only the luckiest the fourth. Yet, you are none of these things. You are not the dumbest, and you are not the greatest of your time, far from it. To say you are the luckiest alive would mean all others have died, and man’s cities are full. Man’s stomachs are large. Lucky is not a word I can use to describe you. So, what are you then? Who are you, Boyd? Boyd the Destroyer? Boyd the Conqueror? Boyd the Supreme? What makes you one of the few to survive the trial that destroys so many before they even begin? What trait allows you to reach my presence?”
Boyd shook his head. He reached the summit not because of his traits but because of his choice — he had none.
“Could it be true? Boyd the Stubborn? Could a man survive my trial on mere stubbornness alone?” asked the voice in the cave circling Boyd.
“Enough,” whispered Boyd. “If you are who I seek, then give me what you owe.”
The voice chuckled.
“Do you possess no respect for who you seek? And if not respect, then fear? You are here, so you know what I can do. Do you not fear that which can wipe you and your entire line from the face of existence with a blink of my eye? Bow down to me instead, and I will spare your life.”
Knees shaking, Boyd rose to his feet. He would not bow. Not to the voice in the cave. Not to anyone. Boyd knew his cause, and he wouldn’t be swayed.
“No. I do not have another moment to waste. Give me what I am owed.”
“Bold. Maybe there is greatness in you after all. Perhaps then, Boyd the Surprising? Come forward.”
Boyd followed the voice, walking deeper into the cave until three identical vases blocked his path.
“Inside one of the containers is what you seek,” spoke the voice in the cave.
“And in the others?” asked Boyd.
“One offers the pain of a thousand deaths for as long as you live.”
“And the last?”
“The best option of the three. Even better than what you seek.”
“Death. Instant and painless. The end of your suffering. Never to be mourned or remembered.”
“What is this?” Boyd screamed at the voice in the cave. “I’ve passed your trials. Fought your demons. Bested your challenges. I’ve given you everything inside me, and you leave the final task to chance?”
“Not chance. Fate. Fate alone can choose you for pain, death, or the goal that you seek.”
Faced with the identical choice three times, Boyd found no reason to stall. He reached for a random container and opened the lid, finding nothing inside.
“More tricks?” Boyd questioned the voice in the cave, throwing the vase into the darkness beyond his reach.
The voice in the cave chuckled again, a laughter colder than the wind.
“Fate has chosen, Boyd Baker, and what you seek is now yours.”
Strength surged through Boyd’s muscles, and his skin stretched to cover his wounds. His senses sharpened, and the world opened unto him. He looked into the future and the past. He knew why butterflies existed and when a single star stopped shining.
“With my power inside you, the history books will declare your name among the greats. Until your final breath, your wildest ambitions will be yours. Now, nothing ever designed can stop you from reaching your place in history,” said the voice in the cave. “Like Mozart will you choose beauty, like Alexander power, or like Bezos riches?”
“I do not answer to you anymore, voice,” said Boyd.
Boyd clenched his fist and launched into the air, his power bending the laws of the world around him. He flew away from the mountain top, leaving behind the voice in the cave. His body cut through the clouds, passing over cities and nations in the time required for a single breath to form.
Boyd had only one goal.
Boyd had only one destiny to achieve.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
For seven days, Emily Baker lay in a hospital bed. For seven days, a global pandemic prevented her family from sitting at her side. For seven days, Emily Baker had fought to stay positive alone.
Boyd sat down next to his baby girl, and he took her hand as she slept.
“What are you doing here?” asked Emily, opening her eyes as the warmth of Boyd’s hand lifted her from sleep. “Won’t the doctors be mad? I told you. It’s standard surgery. I’ll be okay. Go before you get in trouble. I’ll be fine. I promise. You raised me to be tough.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Dad’s right here,” said Boyd the Father. For the first time in seven days, the signs on the wall forbidding visitors were struck meaningless as Boyd was now limitless.