The Decision

by Caleb M. Hoffman, 1998

My last memory of Britannia... was a glimpse of a vast volcanic wastleland, and of the Isle of the Avatar, marred by a monolithic visage of the Guardian carved into it. I heard the Guardian's arrogant laughter... and then all went dark.

Even now, I'm not sure how long that darkness held me, exactly--I only know that it was for a very, very long time. It was like a dreamless sleep, except for one thing I remember, or at least think I remember: at some point, it seemed like I could hear voices calling me, telling me to wake up, telling me that Britannia needed me again. At first they were akin to the faintest whispers, the kind one usually decides are imagined--but very gradually, they grew louder, until there was no mistaking their authenticity. Vaguely, they reminded me of when Garamon called to me from my dreams, warning me that Britannia was in danger... and, like that time, I knew that if I followed these voices, they would take me back to Britannia. But their pull was not yet strong enough to do so, and so I waited. During that time, the voices began to send me visions of the future that they promised awaited me upon my return to Britannia. In them, I was looking down on myself and my longtime friends, Iolo and Shamino. From my vantage point in the sky, I watched us travel Britannia as we had so many times before, helping everyone who needed it, no matter how noble or menial the task required, whether it was slaying dragons in Destard or helping an injured farmer tend his crops.

Seeing these tasks in my future warmed my heart, for even now , few people realize that being the Avatar is so much more than merely slaying monsters and destroying evil--the truth is, when I think back on everything I've done, those are the things in my life that I tend to be the least impressed with. The reason this is so is that, in most cases, I fight only when my life or the lives of others are at stake. In other words, I fight because I have to. But the menial chores and other various "trivialities" I've done... those are the memories that make me smile, because those were all things I did, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Of course, the stories about me rarely mention these things, but I suppose that's only natural--after all, most bards would rather sing of how the Avatar destroyed the Shadowlords and rescued Lord British, than of how he carried flour from the mill to a poor woman and her son in Paws.

As the voices continued to grow in volume and clarity, my own anticipation mounted. I could hardly wait to return to Britannia and travel again with all my old and true friends, to find a way to destroy the Guardian once and for all and free countless conquered worlds from his tyranny. But a terrible thing happened, suddenly and without warning: the voices left me. One moment they were there, comforting me and promising me what would happen upon my forthcoming return--and the next instant they were gone, as if they had found something more interesting on which to concentrate their energies. The realization was painful, and stung at my very heart, for many of the voices had been as familiar as old and dear friends, though I still have no memory of ever meeting who they belonged to. I'd thought they cared about me, and now they had left me all alone in that black, silent abyss. The darkness rapidly began to close on me again, and my last hope before it engulfed me was that the voices would return soon and make all of their wonderful and numerous promises into reality.

There was another period of black unconsciousness, and again, I still have no real idea of how long it lasted. After all, time varies so greatly between worlds that, in some contexts, it can almost be considered meaningless. Five years on Earth was two-hundred in Britannia, and a month on Pagan was, perhaps, hundreds more years. Of course, none of that makes any difference now...

Eventually, after what seemed like eons, the voices did return--just as suddenly as they had left. Though I was relieved, I was also angry at them for abandoning me; I had no way of expressing either sentiment. It was not long before they began sending me visions again, and that was when apprehension first took hold of me. These new visions were much different than the others: for one thing, I could no longer look down at every detail from the sky--now I could only look over my own shoulder. Far worse, I found that in these visions I was all alone. Iolo and Shamino were strangely absent, and I could only wander the land by myself. This shook me to my very core--I may be the Avatar, but I'm only human: if not for my staunch friends and companions, I could never have made it through any of my past adventures. When I was stranded on Pagan, it was the memories of those same people that gave me the strength I needed to survive in a world where no one else would stand with me. What kind of world had Britannia become, if it was now also a place where no one--not even my dearest friends!--would join me?

The worst, however, was yet to come: as the visions progressed, I began to feel what the image of myself in the visions was feeling. It was awful, like in the worst of nightmares, the ones where you're trapped in slow motion as some horror chases you down. It felt as though I couldn't properly manipulate the world around me, like the very laws of physics had been somehow twisted. I felt myself try and make a loaf of bread to feed a starving peasant, but some strange, invisible force prevented it. I had flour, water, yeast, a pan, and an oven, but somehow, I could not put them together to make bread. Other, similar, visions began to plague me as well. The voices, however, continued only to tell me how much better this "new" Britannia would be. But as much as I wanted to believe them, my heart told me that it wasn't true. The original visions had been of a genuinely wonderful future, but the new ones, though more spectacular in appearance, were like a desert mirage--they were fascinating to watch, but were also devoid of any real substance. A horrible thought began to gnaw at me: if this was what Britannia had become in my absence, I wasn't sure I wanted to return. It wasn't that I was abandoning Britannia, it's that this new place, though similar, was in reality somewhere different altogether.

As time progressed, I started to wish more and more that the voices would leave again, but now they only grew louder and more insistent. Many of them, the ones I now remembered hearing in my dreams during years past--some from even before I first encountered the Guardian--began to disappear. Near the end, only two remained: one of them, the one that somehow reminded me of both Lord British and, strangely, of my own father, died back to a mere whisper. I recalled that in previous times it had resounded in my mind with the crisp, authoritarian sharpness of a thunderclap. Now it seemed that thunder was gone, and that thought made me despair to the point of tears. The other voice was one which was alien and confusing. It insisted that it knew and understood me, but every word it said made me shudder with revulsion--especially when it insisted that, on my return to Britannia, it would allow me to "slay dragons and save women," as if those two things should appeal to me. I would much rather talk with a dragon than slay one... and, in my experience, I have met many women more than capable of slaying their own dragons. At first, I found this "other" voice merely annoying, but as it assumed more and more control over the visions, I found myself hating it with a steadily-increasing passion.

Soon after this "new" voice assumed control , I began to feel some intangible force pulling at me; weakly at first, but with rapidly-growing strength. It was trying to drag me into this new Britannia, but by then I knew how I really felt: I would much rather have spent the rest of eternity asleep in that darkness than I would enter the Britannia shown to me by the visions and that maddening voice. As I was pulled inexorably toward the voice's awful source, I found that there was nothing I could do to escape. In my desperation, I cried out for help in that black abyss, imploring anyone who could to save me from becoming a part of this twisted, corrupted Britannia... and, no sooner than I cried out, a voice I had come to know all too well answered, echoing from some unknowable depth in the darkness.

"Aah, Avatar!," it boomed, full of its usual arrogance, "Even now, when we are both stripped of our essences, I find it amusing to hear you beg..."

"You!," I cried, mostly in shock, "You bastard! What... what have you done to Britannia?!"

"Nothing you could not have undone, Avatar," the Guardian replied, his voice now low and solemn, "It is what they did to it that you have seen, and that is something neither of us can undo."

As he spoke, the invisible force's pull on me grew much stronger. I felt it yank my body forward as if I were tied to a freight train, and suddenly the darkness began to clear from my eyes. Though I could not yet see what lay beyond it, I could sense that once the darkness was gone, I would be trapped in that awful vision of Britannia forever. "No!," I screamed, struggling uselessly.

"Hmmm... ," the Guardian mused, "Avatar, you have been a worthy, if extremely annoying, adversary, and you do not deserve the fate that awaits you beyond this darkness. If I did not know the truth, perhaps I would see things differently... but I do know it."

As his words drifted out of the void ,a brilliant, pulsating light appeared before me--the source of the visions and voices, the gateway to the "new" Britannia. Beyond that light, I knew, was a place where I would be stripped of everything that I was, only to be remade as a bland caricature. I turned my back to the light as it began to engulf me and screamed... but suddenly, an all-too-familiar, huge red hand emerged from the darkness before my very eyes. Quickly, it closed around me and pulled me away from the light, back into the safety of the darkness. I had never been so relieved--or so confused. First, I was abandoned by the voices, many of which were like old and dear friends. Then, after their return, they twisted everything they had promised me around, showing me a Britannia that was like some corrupt reflection of the one I knew. That one remaining, insidious voice had tried to ensnare me, and now the Guardian, my arch-nemesis, had saved me?! I was half-inclined to believe that everything that had taken place since my momentary return to Britannia had been engineered as some elaborate, sick joke by the Guardian. It would have been just his style--but if that were the case, why would he have saved me, rather than springing his punchline? Before I could wonder anymore, the hand released me. The darkness did not fade, but it suddenly seemed to bend, to twist itself into shapes before my very eyes. For the first time in a very long while, I felt solid matter beneath my feet, and, as I blinked, my surroundings came into focus. I was standing in a massive room, carved from what appeared to be... blackrock? I had known that the Guardian was capable of manipulating blackrock, even incredible amounts, but not with such skill--this chamber rose almost a hundred feet until tapering into a vaulted, arched gothic ceiling , and six intricately-carved pillars rose up from the floor to meet it. I had never known the Guardian to be such a craftsman; in fact, quite the opposite. It was his dependence on raw power that had allowed me and the others to escape his blackrock gem. The Guardian had always been the type who achieved his ends by exerting his will upon the ether and simply tearing what he wanted from the fabric of reality. As I pondered this, his familiar laugh echoed through the chamber. "Guardian!," I shouted, once again on the defensive, "Show yourself!"

"As you wish... Avatar," came his reply, with just a bit of mocking emphasis placed on my title.

There was a loud, cracking rumble, and a huge throne began to rise from the floor at the center of the chamber, stopping after it reached the twenty-foot mark. A red glow began to diffuse from it, and finally my nemesis appeared at rest in it, standing at least fifteen feet tall. "Hello, old adversary," he said, his voice now uncharacteristically subdued, "Do you realize, Avatar, that this is only the second time we have met face-to-face?"

"Yes, I do," I replied bitterly, "The first time was when you were halfway through the Black Gate, and you begged me not to destroy your plan right at its moment of success. Which I did."

I had intended the remark to sting, but the Guardian just smiled flatly and looked down at me as if deciding what to say. I don't know what I expected my final encounter with the Guardian to be, but it certainly wasn't anything like this. He was making no effort to either taunt or destroy me, a fact which made me more nervous than I would have been if he had. "Why did you bring me here?," I finally demanded, "Why did you, of all people, save me? You said something about knowing 'the truth.'"

"Yes... ," he replied, his burning yellow eyes locking on mine, "I do know the truth now. The truth about Britannia, about the voices and the visions, and even ourselves. I know the true nature of everything we think of as 'reality'... and, knowing what I know, I've found that I cannot hate you any longer. That is why I rescued you--to tell you the truth, if you would hear it."

"How do I know this isn't all some elaborate ruse, designed to trick me into trusting you? It certainly wouldn't be the first time you've tried something like that."

"Believe whatever you wish, Avatar," he answered, looking at me squarely, "But, as you of all people know, what one chooses to believe has no effect on the truth. Do you recall what the Codex asked you, during the final trial you took to prove your Avatarhood?"

"'If all else is imaginary, then this is real'... Very well, Guardian, tell me what you wish. Once I've heard it, I'll decide whether or not it's the 'truth.'"

The Guardian rested his head against a clenched fist and sighed. "You are from Earth, are you not, Avatar?," he asked.

"You know I am. You threatened to take revenge on it after your defeat at the Black Gate."

He gave a small nod. "What other worlds have you visited during your travels?"

"Britannia, of course. The Serpent Isle, though it's really on the same world as Britannia. The lost valley of Eodon. The Ethereal Void. Tarna, Talorus, and some places in other worlds you've conquered, such as the Pits of Carnage, the frozen city of Anodunos, Kilorn Keep, Praceor Loth's tomb, and the Scintillus Academy. I traveled back in time to 1895 and journeyed to Mars with Percival Lowell. Oh, and of course, Pagan--not that I need to tell you that."

The Guardian smiled. "You are quite a traveler, for a human. That will make the truth hard for you to hear, and even harder for you to accept."


"Because, Avatar, in truth, none of those worlds are real--except for Earth, and only it is real in a certain sense."

"Yeah, right," I retorted, not buying a word of it, "And I suppose I've just imagined everything that's happened to me in all those worlds?"

"No, it's not that simple. Everything that you did or saw was real for you, but not real."

"I don't understand. What difference does it make? What's your point?"

"Aah, Avatar... therein lies the irony that makes the truth so hard to accept. No one, not even me, likes to find out that all existence is meaningless, and yet, even so, is dictated by a higher power."

"What 'higher power?,'" I asked, still completely confused.

"Of all the worlds you've visited, Avatar, only Earth is real--but not the one you visited..."

I started to lose my temper. "Goddammit, I'm confused enough already!," I spat at him, "The last thing I need is you toying with me, throwing me a bunch of vague riddles as 'answers!' Either say what you brought me here to say, or just leave me the hell alone!"

The Guardian smiled, taking no offense. Whatever he had learned, be it truth or falsehood, the Guardian was different from before, when the only qualities he had ever shown were greed, anger, deception, and megalomania. Now he seemed more thoughtful, patient... even sad. He just sat upon his massive throne, leaning his head in his right hand and watching me with a neutral expression, as if waiting for me to ask an obvious question. "You said that only Earth was real, and only in a certain sense," I asked, staring him in the face, "What did you mean by that?"

"The voices you heard, and the visions they sent, were from Earth," he replied simply.

"Earth? I thought they would be from Britannia."

"No. Earth--the real Earth, which neither of us can ever see--is where everything that defines our reality comes from: its 'origin,' if you will. There are forces, or entities, there that decide what paths our universe will follow. The voices you heard belonged to those entities."

I wanted so much to deny what the Guardian was telling me, to condemn him as a liar... but somewhere deep in my mind, I knew that what he said was, in fact, the truth. Horror enveloped me--it was like looking at your reflection in a mirror, and suddenly realizing that it's not a reflection of you, but that you are a reflection of it. "No... ," I muttered, "We can't just all be puppets, can we?!"

"But we are, noble Avatar," the Guardian responded, and for the first time I saw genuine sadness cross his crimson visage, " a point.

"To what point?!," I demanded, "Why did these 'entities' suddenly turn on me like that--and what did they do to Britannia?!"

The Guardian sighed. "You may not believe this, Avatar, but there are limits to what even I can know. It seems that these beings from the real earth have abandoned us--their original purpose for creating everything that we call 'real,' I do not know... but whatever that reason was, it seems to have changed. Our world has changed along with it... and there is nothing we can do to stop it."

A thought occurred to me. "But if we really have no free will, how are we even having this conversation right now?," I asked. It seemed like there was still a piece missing...

"That... is where the situation becomes complex," he answered, "It seems that the 'entities' I mentioned are not the only ones capable of affecting what we call 'reality.' From the little I can discern, it seems that there are a greater number of other beings who object to the changes made to our world, but are also powerless to stop it. However, through them, we can find a kind of freedom. As long as they refuse to accept this 'new' world, our old world will continue to live on somewhere in the fabric of existence. That leaves us with a choice."

"What choice?"

"We can either accept the lot that has been handed to us and enter this 'new' Britannia, where all of our complexities and personality will be wiped away, reducing us to bland caricatures acting out the roles the 'entities' on Earth have assigned for us. If this is what you choose, you will defeat me forever and ascend to a state of godlike power and immortality. I will be destroyed. But even in victory, you will be empty and lifeless. If you choose to enter the Britannia that lies beyond this darkness, you will cease forever to be who you are now, and become only what 'They' want you to be."

"What's the alternative?"

"The alternative is a kind of eternal stasis," the Guardian replied, shifting his weight in his massive black throne, "We will remain who we are, but we may never advance in our struggle. Your imprisonment on Pagan will never have happened. I will still be trying to conquer Britannia, and you will still be trying to defend it. Britannia will be the same as it was the last time you were there--but keep in mind, there is very little chance that it will ever change, for better or for worse. Though I will never be able to conquer Britannia, you will never be able to defeat me."

"But why?," I asked, confused.

"I know not. But it seems that only the 'entities' that spoke to you--the ones that twisted Britannia--have the power to affect changes in our reality. For whatever reason, the other, more numerous, beings can only maintain a 'former' state of being in our world. Why this is, I do not know."

"You said there was 'very little chance' that anything would ever change in the 'old' Britannia," I said, "Does that mean there is a chance?"

The Guardian shrugged his titanic shoulders. "Perhaps, if the ones who control our reality were to return to sanity, they would remember their original reasons for creating Britannia, and restore it. But the odds of such a thing, at this point, are very bad."

Suddenly, a kind of calm, quiet sadness washed gently over me. I now knew for certain that the Guardian was telling me the whole truth: things had taken place somewhere beyond the scope of our reality, things that had changed the very fabric of Britannia--its appearance, its people, even the basic laws of physics themselves. I knew, from the visions I knew: Britannia had never looked so alive, yet been so lifeless. I looked directly into the Guardian's luminous yellow eyes, and noticed that they had dimmed. I realized that there was nothing meaningful left to say--there was only the choice, and once it was made, it would be forever. "Stasis," I said, loudly and clearly, "I choose stasis!"

The Guardian smiled and nodded. "As did I," he responded, "Now, noble Avatar, let us set out on the paths we have chosen for ourselves!"

With that, he thrust one hand high into the air, and a piercing light burst from it.

"Avatar?," I heard a voice say, "Darling, art thou all right?!"

The voice was sweet as clover, one I knew as well as my own, but for some reason I couldn't place it. Suddenly, I realized that everything was a uniform white blur. Why couldn't I see anything? I blinked, and my vision began to clear.

"Fear not, lass," came another familiar voice, "The Avatar hath survived the likes of worse than a bottle of ice wine! ...Avatar! Avatar, canst thou not see thou'rt worrying thy lady?"

I blinked again, and my sight returned. A beautiful red-haired woman and a middle-aged man with a mustache were standing over me. I realized I was lying on my back on a stone floor, but where was I? The woman laid one of her smooth, white hands on my cheek, and, as if by magic, the haze cleared from my mind. "N-Nastassia?," I said, "Shamino? What happened?"

Relief showed on both their faces, though Shamino made an attempt to hide his. Now I remembered: I was at the banquet held by Lord British to celebrate my return from the Serpent Isle. I'd taken a drink from one of the bottles of ice wine Shamino had insisted on bringing back, and then... had I passed out? I got up and climbed back into my chair at the banquet table, still just a bit groggy. Seeing that I was all right, Nastassia and Shamino returned to their seats, on either side of my own.

"Thou shouldst learn not to drink beyond thy limits, Avatar!," piped Iolo, who sat between Shamino and Gwenno, "'Tis good to have thee back with us!"

I nodded. I had the feeling that I had forgotten something important, but I dismissed it. "It's good to be back," I replied, smiling.

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