Stark staggered backward, instinctively holding up his own broadsword so that it was by accident and instinct that he deflected the killing stroke from the Other, that being who was him and yet wasn't.
"Why are you doing this?" Stark shouted.
"I already told you. The only way you can get in here is to kill me, and I'm not gonna die."
The two Warriors circled each other warily. "What the fuck are you talking about? You're me . So if I get in there, how can you die?"
"I'm part of you. The not-so-nice part. Or you're a part of me, the good part, and I fucking hate even saying that. Don't act so damn stupid. It's not like you don't know about me. Think back to before you pussied out and swore yourself to that goody-goody bitch. We knew each other lots better then."
Stark stared, seeing the tint of red in the eyes and the harsh set of his own face. The smile was still there, but the cockiness had turned cruel, making his features familiar and alien at the same time.
"You're the bad in me."
"Bad? That's just a matter of which side you're on, isn't it? And from the side I'm on right now, I don't look so damn bad." Laughing, the Other continued, " 'Bad' is a word that doesn't come near to describing my potential. Bad is a luxury. My world is filled with things beyond your imagination."
Stark started to shake his head, wanting to deny what he was hearing, and his concentration faltered.
The Other struck again, slicing a thick furrow down his right bicep.
Stark lifted the broadsword defensively, surprised there was an odd burning but no pain in either arm.
"Yeah, doesn't hurt much, huh? Yet. That's 'cause the blade's too fucking sharp to hurt. But check it out - you're bleeding. A lot. It's only a matter of time before you can't keep that sword lifted anymore.
Then you're done for, and I'll get rid of you once and for all." The Other continued, "Or maybe we'll play. How 'bout I have some fun and flay you alive, piece by fucking piece, until you're nothing more than a bleeding carcass at my feet."
From his peripheral vision, Stark could see that the heat he was feeling was the warmth of the blood that was pumping steadily from the two wounds. The Other was right. He was going down.
He had to fight - and he had to fight now. If he kept hesitating, kept being purely defensive, he would die.
With an action that was completely instinctual, Stark lunged forward, striking out at his mirror image, at everything, anything that could possibly be an opening in his guard, but the red-eyed version of him blocked each move easily. And then, like a cobra, he struck back, sliding through Stark's defenses and hacking a long, deep wound in one thigh.
"You can't beat me. I know all your moves. I'm everything you're not. That goodness crap has made you weak. That's why you couldn't protect Zoey to begin with. Loving her made you weak."
"No! Loving Zoey is the best thing I've ever done."
"Yeah, well, it'll be the last thing you've ever done, that's for - "
Stark was wrenched back into his body. He opened his eyes to see Seoras standing over him, dirk in one hand, the other pressed against his forehead.
"No! I have to go back!" he cried. He felt like his body was on fire. The pain in his sides was unbelievable - the force of it pumped adrenaline through his system. His first instinct was to move! Get away! Fight!
"Nae, boy. Remember yie cannae be movin'," Seoras said.
Stark's breath was coming fast and hard as he forced his body to stay still - stay there.
"Get me back," he told the Guardian. "I have to get back."
"Stark, listen to me." Suddenly Aphrodite's face was there above him. "It's Heath that's the key. You have to get to him before you see Zoey. Tell him he has to move on. He has to leave Zoey in the Other-world, or she'll never come back here."
She grabbed his arm and brought her face down close to his. He could see the blood in her eyes and was jolted by the realization that she must have just had a vision.
"Trust me. Get to Heath. Make him leave. If you don't, there's no one who'll stop Neferet and Kalona, and it's over for all of us."
"If he's to be returnin', he must be goin' the now," Seoras said.
"Take him back," Sgiach said.
The bright edges around Stark's vision began to go gray, and he struggled against being pulled under again.
"Wait! Tell me. How - how do I fight myself?" Stark managed to gasp.
"Ach, 'tis quite simple really. The Warrior within yie must die tae give birth to the Shaman."
Stark couldn't tell whether Seoras's words were a response to his question, or whether they came from his memory, and he had no time to figure it out. In less than a heartbeat, Seoras grabbed his head with a viselike grip and dragged the blade across Stark's eyelids. In a searing, blinding flash he was once more facing himself as if he'd never been gone. Although disoriented by the pain of the Guardian's last cut, Stark realized his body was reacting quicker than his mind could comprehend, and he was easily defending himself against the attack of his mirror image. It was as if the line of the last cut had revealed a geometry of strike lines into the heart of the Other that Stark had never known before, and, because he'd not known it, maybe the Other did not know, either. If that was so, he had a chance, but only a slim one.
"I can do this all day. You can't. Damn, my ass is easy to kick." The red-eyed Stark laughed arrogantly.
As he laughed, Stark lunged, following a strike line that pain and need had revealed, catching the outside edge of his mirror image's forearm.
"Fuck me! You actually drew blood. Didn't think you had it in you!"
"Yeah, well, that's one of your problems; you're too damn arrogant." Stark saw the hesitation that rippled through his mirror image, and a hint of understanding whispered in his mind. He followed that thought as naturally as he'd lifted the broadsword in defense and glimpsed the strike lines all across his body. "No, it's not that you're too damn arrogant. It's me. I'm arrogant."
His mirror image's guard wavered. Stark understood completely then, and he pressed on. "I'm selfish, too. That's how I killed my mentor. I was too selfish to let anyone beat me at anything."
"No!" the red-eyed Stark yelled. "That's not you - that's me."
Seeing the opening, Stark struck again, slicing into the Other's side. "You're wrong, and you know it.
You're what's bad about me, but you're still me. The Warrior wouldn't be able to admit it, but the Shaman in me is beginning to understand it." As Stark spoke, he drove relentlessly forward, raining blows down on his mirror image. "We're arrogant. We're selfish. Sometimes we're mean. We have a bad fucking temper, and when we get pissed off, we hold a grudge."
Stark's words seemed to trigger something in the Other, and he retaliated with a speed almost beyond belief, attacking Stark with a skill and vengeance that was overwhelming. Oh, Goddess, no. Don't let my mouth have messed this up. As Stark barely defended himself against the onslaught, he realized he was reacting too rationally, too predictably. The only possible way to defeat himself was to do what the Other wouldn't be expecting,
I have to give him an opening to kill me.
As the Other rained the blows in to break him, Stark knew this was it. He feigned dropping his guard on his left. With unstoppable momentum the Other went for the gap, lunging forward and making himself - for an instant - even more vulnerable than Stark. Stark saw the strike line, the geometry of the true opening, and with ferocity he didn't know himself capable of, smashed the sword hilt down on the skull of the Other.
Stark's mirror image fell to his knees. Gasping for breath, he was barely able to hold the broadsword up any longer.
"So now you kill me, get into the Otherworld, and get the girl."
"No. Now I accept you because no matter how wise I am or how good I manage to become, you'll always be there inside me."
Red eyes met brown eyes once more. The Other dropped his sword, and with one swift motion hurled himself forward, driving Stark's broadsword to its hilt in his chest. In the raw intimacy of the moment the Other exhaled, so close to him that Stark breathed in the last of the Other's sweet breath.
Stark's gut clenched. Himself! He'd killed himself! Shaking his head in terrible realization, he cried, "No!
I - " Even as he shouted the denial, the red-eyed Stark smiled knowingly, and through bloodstained lips whispered, "I'll see you again, Warrior, sooner than you think."
Stark lowered the Other to his knees, simultaneously drawing the great sword from his chest.
Time suspended as the pine light of Nyx's realm focused on the sword, glinting along its bloody but
beautiful length and blinding Stark, exactly like Seoras's last cut had seared his vision, and miraculously, momentarily, it was as if the ancient Guardian was there beside him and the Other as the three Warriors gazed at the sword.
Seoras spoke without taking his eyes off the hilt. "Aye, it will be the Guardian's claymore for yie boy, a sword forged in hot wet blood, used only in the defense of honor, wielded by a man who has chosen tae guard an Ace, a bann ri, a queen. Its blade is honed tae a bonnie sharpness that cuts withoot pain, and the Guardian who bears this blade will strike withoot mercy, fear, or favor, against those who would defile our grand lineage."
Mesmerized, Stark turned the claymore, allowing the jeweled hilt to catch the light as Sgiach's Guardian continued, "The five crystals, set in as four corners, and the fifth centered with the heart stone, create a constant pulse in tune with the beating heart of its Guardian, if he is a chosen Warrior who guards honor afore life." Seoras paused, finally looking away from the claymore. "Are yie that Warrior, ma boy? Is it a true Guardian yie will be?"
"I want to be," Stark said, trying to will the sword to beat in time with his heart.
"Then yie must always act with honor and send the one you've defeated on to a better place. If yie can do this as a Guardian and no as a boy . . . if yie are aff the true blood soul and spirit, son, yie will find yer last horror will be the ease by which yie accept and execute this eternal duty.
"But know there is no going back, for this is the law and lot o' the Guardian pure, nae grudge, malice, prejudice, or vengeance, only yer unflinching faith in honor can be yer reward, nae guarantee of love, happiness, or gain. For after us there is nothing." In Seoras's eyes, Stark saw timeless resignation. "Yie will carry this for eternity, for who will guard a Guardian? Now yie know the truth of it. Decide, son."
Seoras's image disappeared, and time began again. The Other was on his knees in front of him, staring up at him with eyes that held fear and acceptance.
Death with honor. As Stark thought the words, the claymore's hilt warmed in his hands with a beat that mirrored the pounding of his heart. He closed his other hand on the hilt, reveling in the feeling.
Then the weight of the blade became a life force of its own, filling Stark with a terrible, wonderful strength and knowledge. Without thought, without emotion, he used the arc of a crescent moon to deal the killing blow, crashing the blade sickeningly into the Other, slicing him cleanly from skull to crotch.
There was a great sighing, and the body disappeared.
The full extent of Stark's brutality slammed into him. He dropped the claymore and fell to his knees.
"Goddess! How could I do that and be honorable?"
Mind reeling, Stark knelt on the ground, breathing hard. He stared down at his body, expecting to find gaping wounds in his flesh and blood - lots and lots of his blood.
But he was wrong. He was completely free of any physical wound. The only blood he saw was packed into the earth beneath him. The only wound that remained was the memory of what he'd just done.
Almost with a will of its own, his hand found the hilt of the great sword. Seeing in his memory the killing blow he'd just delivered, Stark's hand trembled, but he gripped the hilt tightly, finding warmth and the echo of the beating of his heart.
"I am a Guardian," he whispered. And with the words came true acceptance of himself and, finally, understanding. It wasn't about killing the bad within him; it was never about that. It was about controlling it. That was what a true Guardian did. He didn't deny brutality; he wielded it with honor.
Stark bowed his head so that it rested on the Guardian claymore.
"Zoey, my Ace, my bann ri shi', my queen - I choose to accept it all and to follow the way of honor.
That's the only way I can be the Warrior you need me to be. This I swear."
With Stark's oath still hovering in the air around him, the archway that was boundary of Nyx's Otherworld disappeared, along with the Guardian claymore, leaving Stark alone, weaponless, and on his knees in front of the goddess's grove and the ethereal beauty of the hanging tree.
Stark struggled to his feet, automatically walking toward the grove. His one thought was that had to find her - his queen, his Zoey.
But as he got nearer to the grove, Stark slowed and finally stopped.
No. He was starting out wrong. Again.
It wasn't Zoey he had to find, it was Heath. As big a pain in the ass as Aphrodite could be, he knew her visions were for real. What the hell was it Aphrodite had said? Something about Heath having to move on for Zoey to come back. Stark thought about it. As much as it hurt him to admit, he could understand why what Aphrodite had seen was the truth. Zoey had been with Heath since they were kids. She'd watched him die, which had hurt her so badly her soul had shattered. If she could be whole, and be with Heath here . . .
Stark looked around, and as when he'd connected with the claymore, he was really seeing .
Nyx's realm was incredible. The grove was directly in front of him though he could sense the vastness of the place, and knew Nyx's realm was way bigger than this one place. But, in all honesty, the grove itself was enough - green and welcoming, it was like a shelter for his spirit. Even after what he'd been through to get there, knowing his responsibilities as Zoey's Guardian, and understanding his quest was far from finished, Stark wanted to enter the grove, breathe deeply, and let the peace of it fill him. Add Zoey's presence to all of that, and he'd be more than content to stay here for at least a slice of eternity.
So, yeah, give Heath back to Zoey, and she'd want to stay. Stark rubbed a hand over his face. He hated to admit it - it broke his heart to admit it - but Zoey loved Heath, maybe even more than she loved him.
Stark mentally shook himself. The love she felt for Heath didn't matter! Zoey had to come back - even Aphrodite's vision said so. And, sure, if Heath weren't involved, he'd probably be able to convince her to come back with him. That was the kind of girl she was - she cared about her friends more than she cared about herself.
Which was exactly why Heath would have to leave her, and not the other way around.
So he'd have to find Heath and talk him into giving up the only girl he'd ever loved. Forever.
But it should also have been impossible for him to have defeated himself and accept all that meant.
So think, damnit! Think like a Guardian and don't just act and react like a stupid kid.
He could find Zoey. He'd done it before. And once he found Zoey, Heath would be there, too.
Stark's gaze went to the hanging tree. It was bigger here than on Skye, and the pieces of cloth that were tied to its massive umbrella of branches kept changing colors and lengths as they waved gently in the warm breeze.
The hanging tree was about dreams and wishes and love.
Well, he did love Zoey.
Stark closed his eyes and concentrated on Zoey - on how much he loved her and missed her.
Time passed . . . minutes, maybe hours. Nothing. Not one fucking thing. Not even a vague inkling of where she might be. He couldn't feel her at all.
You can't give up. Think like a Guardian.
So love wouldn't lead him to Zoey. Then what would? What was stronger than love?
Stark blinked in surprise. He already had the answer. He'd been given it with the title of Guardian and the mystical claymore.
"For a Guardian, honor is stronger than love," Stark said aloud.
He'd barely finished speaking the words when a thin golden ribbon appeared directly above him in the hanging tree. It glinted with a metallic luminescence, reminding Stark of the torque of yellow gold Seoras wore around his wrist. When the ribbon unknotted and floated free of the tree and into the grove, Stark didn't hesitate. He followed his gut and this small reminder of honor, and strode after it.