When the Walker arrived to collect the world’s heart, someone else was already there.

The heart nestled within a great tree at the top of a steep hill, surrounded by a fuchsia lake whose waters teemed with poison. The only way to reach the hill was from below, through tunnels that laced through the secret places inside the earth. The Walker had braved the depths of the crystal caverns to make it here, the weight of rock and lake-water above pressing down on every step of the way.

Now, they stepped back into fresh surface air, blinking against the light. After the deep darkness of the caves, even the gentle blush of sunset was blinding. It glinted off the jagged crystals spilling from the cave mouth; two sparkling stone tongues carved a path up the hillside that widened into a circle around the tall heart-tree.

At the crown of the hill, a slim black shape stood arrow-straight beneath the heart-tree’s sprawling boughs.

Shock washed through the Walker, followed by cold fear, and finally, bright lightning anger. They began to run up the hill.

This could not happen. This world was theirs, and Walkers did not make mistakes. When a world was dying, it called out to the Walker who was destined to secure its heart, and all the chosen Walker had to do was answer. No one else would think to interfere with that sacred duty. Being preempted by another was unheard of.

And yet there was an Other. Tall and lanky, dressed in dark clothes, a splinter of void against the vibrant sky. One of the Other’s hands rested against the tree’s mighty trunk. The heart inside glowed in response to his touch.

The Walker squinted against the rays of the setting sun sparking off the translucent crystals. Their breath came fast, their body screaming with alarm. There was no time to lose. This moment should have been one of slowness and reverence, of taking in the beauty of this world before easing it to its end. Instead—no, oh, no!—the process had already begun. The heart’s shine grew stronger with every second, the baneful, impossible figure of the Other consumed by its light.

“Stop!” the Walker cried. “You should not be here!”

It was enough to startle the Other out of the vital state of concentration. For a moment—thank the Most High—the heart’s light stilled and faded.

This close, the Walker saw that the heart was hidden in a hollow in the trunk of the tree. The tree’s bark was black as coal, its leaves a brighter fuchsia even than the toxic water of the lake below. The glow pouring from the hollow obscured the shape of the heart, but it clung to life, bravely, stubbornly. The Walker’s own heart throbbed in response, calling out to it: Do not worry. Just a little longer, and I will make things right.

“Ah,” said the Other, in a drawl like a slow creature stirring at the bottom of the sea. “You’re early.”

The Walker sucked in a sharp breath, their chest stinging with disbelief, betrayal. This Other wasn’t meant to be here, and his casual disrespect proved that he knew it: no bow, no polite address, and certainly no hint of the startled guilt the Walker would have felt in his position. The Other was impossibly young, his face smooth, his green eyes alight with passion. He looked as though he should have been an apprentice, following the work of an Elder to learn the proper skills and rites. What was he doing here, alone and unsupervised, in a world whose call had not been his to answer?

“You should not be here,” the Walker repeated, the conviction in their words cut with confusion.

“And where should I be, pray tell?” said the Other, and—oh, relief softened the Walker’s soul—withdrew his hand from the trunk. The glow retreated back into the hollow, finally exposing the shape of its source. The heart of this world was a crystal. It resembled the ones in the cave and along the path on the hilltop, but it was smaller and far more perfect in proportion and sheen. Its surface was unblemished and clear as a forest pool. The Walker’s being ached with the beauty of it.

Then the Other spoke again, rooting the Walker back into unpleasant reality. “Oh—you mean you expected to find me in a Garden, or nipping at an Elder’s heels? I left all that behind, after I discovered the lies it’s built on.”

The Walker was taken aback. There had been whisperings of this among the Gardeners, of rogue factions with ideas so absurd that the Walker had not quite been able to believe them. Those factions, the Gardeners said, claimed that there was something wrong with the work of protecting world-hearts. They had twisted this sacred duty into sinister conspiracy, espousing some sort of anarchy in its place. The Walker did not know the details; indeed, they did not want to know.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” they said, and their own voice sounded foreign to them; hollow.

“Don’t I? I was raised with those teachings, just like you.” The Other’s green eyes were flinty chips of stone. “But I chose to question the falsehoods they fed us, while you, evidently, swallowed them whole.”

This was bad. If the Other was one of the renegades who opposed the safeguarding of hearts, it meant he was here to... The Walker could barely think it.

“Step away from the tree.” The Walker became acutely aware of the seed pouch tucked inside their cloak as a fierce protectiveness filled their being. This Other must be kept away from it at all costs.

The Other’s face flickered into a humorless smile.


A soft wind played across the Walker’s face, rustling through the deep pink leaves of the heart-tree. It seemed to the Walker as if the dying world were whispering a plea, entreating them to stop the Other before this went too far.

Dormant instincts quickened beneath their skin. They had not needed their training in a very long time, but they had never forgotten it.

Slipping between places was second nature. It was, in essence, the same as crossing the void between worlds—like folding up fabric upon which bright marbles had been tossed, bringing them close enough to touch. But the distance to the Other was miniscule compared to the vast ocean of space—a precision cut, an impossible sliver.

It was difficult, but it could be done.

The Walker slipped, dipping into the Equilibrium for a fraction of a moment before resurfacing right behind the Other’s back.

The light-dagger had lain untouched in its sheath for the better part of an aeon. The Walker drew it now and struck.

It was like slicing smoke. The Other’s body was there one second and gone the next, scattering as if it had never existed.

The Walker’s every sense lit up with alarm. The Other was no amateur, then; he’d anticipated the ambush and slipped to escape. This would be harder than the Walker had expected.

They dove back into the Equilibrium, the place behind all places, where space goes flat and sprawling all at once. Stars that were not stars wheeled above their head as they cast their eyes about in search of the Other.

There—the merest flicker, at the outermost edge of their perception. If they had not walked these planes for so long, the movement would have been invisible: an irregularity in the fabric of space, a ripple where the Other was pushing through layers of reality.

The Walker slipped again, out of the Equilibrium—but not back to the heart-tree, either. For a split second, they were in the world above the world, removed from it as the skin of the body is wrapped around the bones. There were people in that upper world, and buildings the color of sand. The Other’s sable cloak flashed ahead, and the Walker darted after him, weaving invisibly through the bustling crowd.

The Other would be going back for the heart. The Walker’s only chance was to preempt him. They summoned every ounce of swiftness they had and slipped back into the realm of the great tree.

There was something to be said for experience, after all. The Walker had been quicker. When the Other resurfaced in the dying world, they were ready for him. They launched their weight at his midsection, blade flashing like lightning. The two of them tumbled to the ground, the dry earth swirling around them fine as mist. The Walker found purchase; they were older, knew every trick in the book and some unwritten ones besides. They used those skills now to gain the advantage and pressed the light-dagger against the Other’s throat.

Defiant green eyes glared up at them. The Walker recoiled at the sheer depth of hatred that burned in the Other’s gaze.

“Why are you doing this?” the Walker implored him. He writhed and kicked, pinned beneath the Walker’s weight. The edge of the light-dagger was impossibly subtle, sharp enough to end even a life like theirs. If the Other moved too suddenly, the dagger would open his throat. The Walker’s hand held steady. “Why do you try to destroy the work?”

“The work,” the Other spat, baring teeth clenched in fury. The Walker’s whole being throbbed with anguish. It was unbearable to see such incomprehensible rage teeming inside someone born to the finest task in all the universes. “The work is a delusion.”

“You’ve been misled. Please leave.”

“I will not let you take the heart of this world!”

“You would let it languish in death?” the Walker cried, the mere thought piercing them to their core.

“I would set it free,” said the Other, and oh, there was a plaintive note in his voice that spoke volumes. He really did believe. Whatever twisted teachings his cult espoused, he had taken the bait, and the Walker had no way to dislodge that stubborn hook. Their heart sank with the unwelcome certainty that this would end in pain. “I would return this heart to the cradle of space, restore its chances to live on beyond the confines of a Garden.”

“Chances? You don’t know what you’re saying. You are dooming whole worlds to darkness. You would deny this world its rebirth?”

“As you deny this world its freedom? As you—all of you—deny it a chance to define itself?”

“This is mistruth,” the Walker snapped. They pressed their weight harder into the body struggling beneath them, feeling a glimmer of unkind satisfaction as the Other flinched. Still, they hoped their exertion did not show on their face. The Other was strong. A single moment of inattention and he would throw the Walker off. It took all their concentration to keep the furious Other prone. “This has always been the way. What you propose is dangerous.”

‘This has always been the way’?” Laughter rose from the Other’s throat, low and horrible, a sound like the earth’s crust cracking. A calamitous sound. “Oh, dear. You’ve bought the fairy-tale. You think we stepped out of void-stuff, prepared to Walk and to Garden the moment that existence began? How perfectly presumptuous. Gardeners, Walkers—all these words we made up later, all these lies. All you’ve ever been is Meddlers. Snatching world-hearts before they’re cold in their graves. And for what?”

A push came from the Other then, a wave of dark energy roiling forth. Not just the strength of his body; he was engaging something else, something deeper. The Walker held fast.

“If we didn’t tend the world-hearts,” the Walker protested, “they could not come back!” This was basic information; even the youngest among them would know. What good would a reminder do? Some good, the Walker hoped, chest tight with fervor. “They’re unstable. They would disintegrate, plunge back into nothingness. Life as we know it would end.”

The Other firmly shook his head. “They would spread out among the stars, and one day, they would converge again with their long-lost siblings and remake themselves in shapes beyond our wildest dreams. But that terrifies you, doesn’t it? Because your life, as you know it, would end. You would become obsolete.” He bared his teeth; the expression was feral and decidedly not a grin. “You and all the others—you fear anything that might grow bigger than yourselves. And so you walk, you garden, you meddle. You take the worlds as they die and force them back by your own hand—ensure that they grow within the frames you’ve set, and not an inch further. You will never let these worlds touch the light of truth.”

Silence followed like a slap. It was broken only by the soft rustling of wind through the branches of the heart-tree towering behind them. Inside its little hollow, the crystal lay, its glow fading quicker with every passing moment. Urgency thrummed beneath the Walker’s skin.

“What you speak of is entropy,” they urged, amazed at their own desperate desire to bargain with this extremist. They imagined the perfect form of the universe, carefully tended by all their kind. They summoned its beautiful latticework in their mind and willed the Other to see it, in all its splendor.

The Other resisted the connection. He was closed to the truth. And yet the Walker pushed on. “What you speak of is the horror of randomness, sparks wheeling through vacuum, the possibility for collision virtually nil. What you speak of is the end of life, and the still-birth of a void that cannot know itself!”

The Other’s eyes narrowed to smug green slits. The Walker found the way he was looking at them deeply unpleasant. “Wrong. We came from somewhere, didn’t we? It’s time for something new to sprout from our soil, without the interference of our hands. Let the seeds drift where they will on the breeze of time!”

And then—

CRACK. An impossible force exploded from the Other. It slammed into the Walker’s chest and threw them backward. Their light-dagger flew from their hand, skidding across the dusty ground. Its blade flickered in and out of existence as it came to rest against the trunk of the heart-tree.

The sun had almost set into the fuchsia waters. Its dying rays set the crystal ring around the tree ashimmer.

The Other staggered to his feet. His hair was long and loose, drifting around his face like a dark halo.

The Walker’s whole body burned. The blast that had come from the Other had spared the world but incinerated the Walker’s body. Their arms ended in charred bone. Their mouth was melted shut. They had become agony.

The Other was glowing. He was illuminated from within, his green eyes phosphorescent, his teeth silhouetted black against the light pouring from his mouth.

What was this power?

The Walker’s flesh and bone would return, but it would take too long. There was nothing they could do now; not with their body, their vessel and vehicle, singed into uselessness. They could only watch through blood-filmed eyes as the Other reached into the hollow and cupped the heart-crystal in his gloved hands.

There was reverence in the way he held it, a deep respect for the essence of this world. That, at least, was true to the teachings the Other and the Walker had both been raised with. In this, the Walker, lying broken on the earth, found a twisted comfort.

The awful light that had flashed from the Other was fading now, and as it did, he seemed to wither. Some of his youthfulness sloughed off him, shrinking him, diminishing his glow.

Regeneration set in soon after, restoring the Other to fullness, but the Walker understood now what it was that he had done.

He had taken of himself, torn out his holy life-force, the blessing of the Most High. He had harnessed that act of heresy to create an explosion of power like nothing their kind had ever been meant for—all to defeat the Walker, who was superior in speed and skill but entirely unprepared for something like this.

The Walker ached, and the pain was not just in their disfigured body. They ached for the Other, for his delusions, for what he’d done—his awful disregard for both himself and for the cosmic order. And they ached for themselves, for their own failure to stop him.

Their vision was blurring rapidly. Through eyes half-open, they saw that the Other, as he retrieved the heart, did not perform the customary rites. He did not smooth the crystal into the perfect sphere of fertile possibility that could be replanted in a Garden and blossom into a new and glorious world. Instead, he took it raw, conjured an orb of energy—drawn from the universe this time, and not his own finite soul—to protect it, and hid it away within his black cloak.

Then the Other turned and approached the spot where the Walker lay. With each step his silhouette grew larger, obscuring the heart-tree from the Walker’s view.

The Other crouched beside the Walker and reached for their cloak.

The Walker grew dizzy with terror. They willed the stumps of their limbs to thrash, kick, escape, but their maimed body remained an unresponsive husk. They were helpless to stop the Other’s hand as it slid into their cloak and rummaged through.

The search did not take long, ending in a fragile clack as the Other’s fingers closed around the seed pouch. He plucked the pouch from the scorched cloak and got back to his feet. Everything the Walker had fought to protect disappeared inside the folds of the Other’s clothing.

“I am sorry it came to this,” the Other said. “You don’t seem unkind. Few of you are. You’re only lost. Only unthinking.”

Why didn’t you kill me?

The Walker spoke at a low frequency—beneath thought, where the mouth did not move. They managed only the weakest of utterances, but the Other heard.

“If we ever meet again, I’ll have to.”

You are killing yourself, the Walker said. The terrible blast as the Other tore out part of his own life, shocking his elder into smoldering defeat, replayed itself in the Walker’s mind.

His lips flickered. The smile this time was sad.

“I believe there are things more deserving of life than I—a lesson our people forgot too long ago, as we forgot that we were not the first.”

Our. Not your. The Walker might have cried, if their tear ducts had not been scorched shut. The Other remembered his origins; he only chose to dishonor them.

“Some of us have decided to remember. We call ourselves Liberators, Elder, and we should be grateful to take in one of your skill. You don’t need to meddle forever. Our doors stand open to you, should you choose to awaken.”

Resentment pulsed through the Walker then, harsh and sour. How magnanimous this Other dared act, now that he had won! They focused on the pain, embraced its cold fire, and did not reply.

The Other seemed to understand. He inclined his head, and then he walked away, down the crystal-lined path, taking the world-hearts with him.

The swollen sun sank beneath the horizon. There was a flash, the same green as the Other’s eyes, and this world’s final day came to an end.

The Walker gazed up at the sky, through the branches of the gutted heart-tree. Did the tree miss the life-giving crystal that the Other had snatched from inside it? Or had it grown inert and unfeeling the moment the heart was taken away?

That heart and all the other stolen seeds were bound for a frightening, uncharted fate. The Other’s words had made his intention plain: he would release them into the endless dark. Far from lush soil and loving care, they would be left to fend for themselves in the cold expanse. There, they would wander alone, their opportunity to collide with another and make beautiful music abandoned to the whims of chance.

No. This the Walker could not forgive.

There was nothing—nothing—they would not give to put things right.

And with that thought came a flash of clarity.

Maybe there was a way. And the young Other, in his foolish zeal, had handed it to them.

There are things more deserving of life than I. In that, at least, the Other had been right.

The Walker had focused energy a million million times: to slip, to walk the void, to gather the hearts of dying worlds. The process was as familiar to them as the rustling of a Gardener’s robes. But the source of the Walker’s energy had always been external, drawn from the great slow streams that coursed around the Equilibrium.

They had never thought to siphon their own soul.

It would only be this once. The act was an affront to the Most High—but surely, letting the Other escape would be far worse. Only this once. I promise.

All they had to do was turn their focus within. Pierce the wavering surface of that barrier never meant to be crossed, that separated oneself from oneself, and grasp the gleam at their center....

Remember the hearts. Remember the fate they are meant for. One did not walk for as long as they had by thinking of worlds as disposable.

They pushed through the hesitation. Their awareness shifted to the plane where they could sense the hum of energy, but instead of seizing hold of the universe’s steady flows, they dove into the wellspring at their core.

There were no explosions, no bursts of light. The Other’s theatrics were beneath them. All they needed was a trickle. Just enough to become whole again.

Whole enough to give chase.

Heat pulsed through the remains of their limbs. Bone sprouted. Skin knitted together, closing over vessels and sinew. The Walker gritted their teeth through the pain of new growth.

The Other should never have come to this world. The hearts should have remained safe in the Walker’s care. Nothing had gone as it was meant to, but it was not too late to reverse the damage.

The Walker would chase the Other down and ensure that every precious heart in that pouch would have the chance to be safely reborn.

Brimming with renewed purpose, they burned their life-spark bright and slow.

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C.S. Marten is a Swedish American writer based in Stockholm. They enjoy learning languages (dead or alive), occult history, and single-player video games. As a reluctant member of a human-only household, they would love to look at pictures of your pets. Occasionally they write stories about earnest people, melancholy places, and the worlds hiding just beneath the surface of our own.

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