The Oxford English Dictionary defines darkness as “the partial or total absence of light.” And it’s true - ordinary darkness isn’t a thing, it’s just where a thing, which is light, is not.
Behind the gates in the final world, there is darkness. But the darkness there is tangible. Living. Infinite.
It is older than time, than any universe. The darkness behind the gates is the First Darkness, that existed in balance with the Light of the very first beginning. It is imprisoned, locked away in a cage forged by a god.
But no cage can hold back infinity. Shadows seep between those mighty gates, and they fall through creation, dripping through the boundaries between worlds.
A shadow fell on the ice world.
It passed through to the grey world.
Wherever the shadows fall, they fall with a single purpose, to snuff out the light of life wherever they find it. They feed on it, and the Holy Fire of mortal souls turns to the Unholy Darkness of the monsters.
And now we have followed it back to its source. To the gates of Hell itself.
That’s what the voice in the cave called it. I’ve wondered if that was a metaphor, representing some final challenge that will test us to our breaking points. I don’t believe in Hell, or the devil. Evil, true evil, comes from man, not some horned demon from a realm of suffering and fire.
And yet, here I stand, Hayley’s body resting at my feet, an insignificant speck in the face of two megalithic obsidian gates, higher and wider than I can take in. The sky is crimson, the ground is black. There is no wind.
These are the gates of Hell. I cannot possibly see what lies behind them, but I can feel it. In my mind, in my blood, in my bones.
“You can sense it, can’t you?” a voice suddenly says – the same voice from the cave, what feels like a lifetime ago. I turn sharply, and a figure stands beside me, dressed in the grey, tattered robes of a wandering monk. I cannot make out their face beneath the shadows of their hood, but the voice is male, and carries with it the weariness of centuries.
This is him. The one who called us all this way.
“Who are you?” I ask him.
The man chuckles, but the chuckle dissolves into a splutter, and then a hacking cough that leaves him bent over double, a hand on his chest. I move towards him, uncertain if I should help, but he waves me away with a gnarled, bony hand.
“My name is not important,” he says once he has recovered. “I am the Guardian, and it was my voice you heard. All along, actually, not just in the cave. I called you across the worlds - you, and thousands of others, her included,” he adds, nodding at Hayley.
There’s so much I want to say, to ask, but there’s one thing more important than anything else.
“Can you save her?” I ask, praying beyond all hope it’s a yes.
“I can,” he replies, but makes no move towards Hayley. I look at him, confused and expectant. “But it is not the way.”
“You mean you won’t?” I ask, disbelieving, and my hand curls into a fist.
“There is nothing that can be done for her by way of physical means. I could employ the powers bestowed upon me to aid her, but there would be consequences.”
“To Hell with the consequences!” I shout at him, drawing myself up to my full height despite the pain of my injuries, staring straight at where I imagine his eyes must be. “You brought us here, so that makes you responsible. This is all your fault!”
He shakes his head in a manner that seems almost condescending. “You will understand in time. There is nothing to be done for your friend.”
“Please,” I beg, “I…she…” I trail off, knowing what I feel but not how to say it with words.
He nods, slowly, understanding my meaning. “Move away from her,” he commands.
I’m reluctant to leave her side, but I have no other options. This man is my only hope.
I step away.
The man raises a hand, and my eyes widen at the deep, livid scar that covers his palm. It’s a pentagram, a circle filled with a five-pointed-star.
The scar begins to glow, first red and then white-hot. The light becomes brighter and brighter, the shining symbol burning into my retinas. It might be just my eyes playing up in the glare, but it looks to me like tendrils of the unearthly light are peeling away from his hand and focusing on Hayley. At that point, it becomes so bright I have to close my eyes. When I open them again, her wounds are healed, and she’s sleeping peacefully, her chest rising and falling as it should.
“Thank you,” I turn to say, my muscles sagging in relief, but he’s on his knees, panting and wheezing like he’s having an asthma attack.
I run to him but he pushes me away, slowing his breathing and forcing himself to his feet.
“You can’t help me, boy,” he growls. “That’s not why you’re here.”
There’s a sigh from behind us, and I turn to see Hayley getting to her feet. My heart soars, and I wrap her in a crushing hug. She laughs. “I can’t breathe, Felix.”
I let go, and she looks around, seeing where she is for the first time. “Are we... there?” she breathes, and then she sees the man.
“Is that him?”
I nod. “He’s about to tell us what he wants from us,” I say pointedly, looking at him.
And he tells us about the darkness that lies behind the gates, that it leaks into the other worlds and snuffs out the light.
“Is that what they were then, the monsters?” I ask. “They came from behind there?”
“Not quite,” the man replies. “The monsters are the victims, souls turned by the Darkness’ corruption.”
“Like they’re possessed?” Hayley asks.
The man shakes his head. “No, they’re not demons. They cannot control life while it is alive. This is why they kill. Why they never stop.”
He chuckles bitterly, and for a moment he seems somehow even older than I had thought him before.
“So what do you need us for?” I ask, still not understanding. “And why did you drag us all this way? I mean, we could have died!” He doesn’t react to my anger. Even though I can’t see his face, I can tell he’s just looking at me.
“Seriously!” I say, and Hayley puts a hand on my arm, but I brush her off, my rage exploding at the man who has caused us all this pain. “What the hell? You’ve taken me away from my family, you’ve taken Hayley from hers – you killed Iain! You could have killed us!”
“Felix,” she says quietly, but I ignore her.
“How could you do this to us?” I cry. “How?”
“Felix!” she interrupts me, pointing behind me. “Look!”
I turn, and am stunned by what I see.
Hovering in the air behind us is a shimmering patch of… nothing. It’s very difficult to describe, because it’s not simply the absence of light. It’s real, it’s physical, and it’s utterly evil. Darkness in its purest sense.
We can all feel it. The three of us are all travellers, wanderers in time and space, and the Void calls to us in a way that is unspeakable to anyone else.
Finally, you come, it seems to say, in silent screams dripping with malevolence.
It’s watching us, through that patch of shadow. An eye bigger than a galaxy, staring into our souls.
At last, the Guardian comes to die, and our game begins anew. Tell me, Felix Aiden Lewis and Hayley Beckett-Smith, who have walked the path of O as so many others have before you – do you really believe your destinies to be those of mere pawns?
The voice at once both chills me and sets my blood aflame. I shake myself and turn to the old man.
“What is it?” Hayley asks, her hand moving to her bow.
“My prisoner,” he whispers. “Come now, we do not have long.”
He strides forward to the patch of shadow, any hint of the infirmity he displayed before vanished in an eyeblink.
“Quiet, you,” he says calmly, and raises his hand.
The dark patch bursts with light, and the voice cries out with infernal fury. When the light fades, the patch has shrunk to a thin black crack in the air, the titanic presence behind it temporarily bound.
The man gasps.
“That should hold it for a few hours. But like I said. Consequences. My energy is almost spent, and when that crack opens again, I will be nothing at all.”
“You’re dying,” Hayley observes, and he nods.
“Very astute of you. And when I am gone, there will be no one to hold the Gates closed. And without a Guardian, they will pour forth.”
As though punctuating his words, the crack spasms, and from within it come three bolts of shadow, arcing above us, and falling to the black ground with three tremendous cracks.
Where each bolt strikes the ground, something begins to rise. Within moments, we find ourselves surrounded in a triangle by three familiar figures. Monsters.
“I need someone to replace me,” the man says. “My task is of the utmost importance, and the position of Guardian must be filled. And yet, here are two of you.”
The sky darkens, and the monsters burst into life.
“There can only be one Guardian.”