Fantasy Suspense

The gate is weakening.

Hush. He still has time.

He hears us now. See how he flinches?

Yes, but he has time still. Have patience. 

Eldric paused in his task, allowing his trembling hands to set the fist-sized lump of wood on top of the pile of completed figurines. Creating the small talismans was usually easy and required little to no thought. For some reason, he couldn’t figure out how to finish his most recent creation. The voices were only making it more difficult. 

Out of habit alone, he glanced toward the eastern wall of the cavern where a pile of stone slabs lay. Each slab, roughly the size of a tome, was etched with hundreds of jagged tally marks. He had stopped keeping track of the passing days long ago, sometime after completing the twentieth tab. He figured at least two decades had passed since his watch began, but how long ago had he stopped counting? Months? Years, perhaps? Decades? He wasn’t sure the years he had counted were even accurate as it was impossible to gauge the passing of time within the depths of The Dark. 

Becoming the next Keeper was a dream of nearly every child. The Keepers held higher praise than even the Pantheon, as they alone kept The Dark at bay. Though this knowledge was common, few knew the technicalities of what a Keeper’s duties entailed. Very few. And those few individuals who did know, went to great lengths to ensure no one knew the truth. 

For decades, Eldric had served as the Keeper. Even he did not know the truth. For his bravery and extraordinary prowess on the battlefield, he had been chosen to ascend to the position. No privilege could be higher, especially for one as young as he had been, hardly past the cusp of manhood. 

Even after years in darkness, Eldric could still remember the swelling pride in his chest as he was led from the ranks and into the Temple of the Light. Few were allowed to walk the halls of the Pantheon, the Keeper being one of those few. Pride and unwavering determination to prove himself worthy of the title kept the boy from asking any questions surrounding his new duties, sure that the Priests of The Light would not have chosen him if there was any doubt in his abilities. 

Miles beneath the Temple, after traversing numerous tunnels and shafts in near complete darkness, Eldric was at last shown his post and provided instruction. 

Keep the Flame alive, for it is the Flame that holds The Dark at bay. 

That was all he was told before left alone deep within the stone, miles below the surface, with only a burning brazier, a single bedroll, and piles of wood and supplies that was mysteriously replenished during the scant hours Eldric allowed himself to sleep. 

With no other instruction given to him, Eldric did as he was tasked. He kept the Flame alive. 

The pocket of space deep within the ground that had become his home was just that. At his back, a jagged crack in the stone-faced wall spanned from the ground to the ceiling a mere five feet above his head. Slate walls lined the small cavern on each side, eventually disappearing before him past the border of light emitted from the Flame, which roared strongly in a metal brazier in the center of the floor. 

The only warning he had received upon taking up his post, beside not letting the Flame flicker or go out, was to stay within the protection of the light. 

Eldric began keeping a tally of the passing days less than a week into his solitude. Having no sun or stars to indicate the passage of time, he measured the days by the frequency of which he slept. He only slept when his wood and food storage became low. He knew from the onset that his method was flawed and most likely not accurate. However, he continued the habit for the sake of his own sanity. 

One month into his duty as Keeper, he began carving figurines into the wood he was supplied to feed the Flame. The whittling was an attempt to keep himself busy to avoid looking into the depths of The Dark just past the lit border of the Flame. At first, the carvings were figures of people he knew. His mother. What he could remember of his father, who had died in a border skirmish when he was only a child. His best friend. The girl he loved and would someday marry when his duty was done. 

He no longer entertained such frivolous fantasies. He had known upon accepting this post that his duty wouldn’t end. In recorded history, there had never been a Keeper who returned from their post. Even now, decades later, he continued to carve the figures, though he did not know who he a-likened them to. Perhaps they were people he once knew. Perhaps not. 

Years passed in this manner, until Eldric stopped avoiding the darkness around him, stopped pretending it simply didn’t exist. Not for a moment during his solitude did he feel truly alone. There was something there, just beyond the reaches of the Flame. He didn’t know what - or who - was there, but he could feel their presence. When he finally acknowledged that he was not alone in the abyss, he stopped tallying the days and the concept of time ceased to exist. 

Some time ago, Eldric wasn’t sure how long as he had forgotten how to do such calculations, the whispering began. Having forgotten the sound of another’s voice, Eldric had at first been startled, nearly calling out into the darkness beyond the crevasse in the wall behind him. He realized then that he no longer had a voice. How long had it been since he had spoken? He couldn’t remember. One did not speak to the The Dark, which had been his sole companion for longer than he had the ability to remember. 

The whispers gradually grew louder, new voices joining in the chorus. They called to him in the beginning, excitement evident in their tones. As Eldric ignored them, they turned accusatory, insulted by his lack of response. They no longer vied for his attention, instead speaking amongst themselves, discussing the progress of his insanity as though his breaking point was an event they eagerly awaited. 

Hands trembling, chest pounding, he could take the torment no longer. Tossing the unfinished figurine he’d been struggling with into a basket, Eldric stood and faced The Dark. He wanted to shout, to yell into the abyss and vent his frustration. He opened his mouth, and only the strangled garb of vocal cords left unused for far too long emerged. 

He finally speaks!

Well, he tries. He does not yet realize that we can hear him, even if he does not speak. 

Does this mean it is time? 

The voices raised in volume, talking over one another in excitement. 

 Yes! It is time! 

The Rebirth is upon us! 

We do not know yet what he will do. This may be The End. 

It is time! 

The Rebirth! 

Eldric slammed his hands against his ears, trying desperately to block out the voices. The sudden crescendo was overwhelming. Yet even with his hands clamped tight over his ears, the voices didn’t so much as muffle. The voices coming from The Dark were not before him, but inside him. 

He wanted to scream. He wanted to beg for them to stop and leave him alone but could not form the words. Crumbling to his knees, Eldric dropped his arms, his hands dangling limply by his side. 

As suddenly as they had begun, the voices stopped. The silence was nearly just as deafening. Only Eldric’s ragged breathing could be heard above the pounding of his heart. As his breathing slowed, the blood no longer rushing in his ears, a great sense of wrongness coagulated around him. 

He was alone. Whatever presence that was The Dark… was gone. For the first time since his solitude as the Keeper began, Eldric felt truly alone. As fear the likes he had never known rushed through him, it dawned on him that even when facing The Dark in the beginning, he had never been afraid. 

Before he could process the implications of his actions, Eldric rushed headlong into The Dark. Unseen behind him, the Flame flickered. 

Impenetrable shadows enveloped Eldric as though he was plunged into the icy depths of a lake. Though he ran blindly, he encountered no walls or obstacles. The ground beneath his feet was smooth, clear of any debris that might trip him. With no thought to what he was doing or where he was going, Eldric ran. 

After a time, his legs couldn’t carry him any further. Chest heaving, he fell to the floor. If the impact caused any harm to his hands or knees, he was past the ability of perceiving it.

“Come back.” He choked out the words, each syllable feeling like sandpaper against his tongue. 

We never left. 

Gasping, Eldric lifted his gaze, searching for the source of the voice. He saw only the empty abyss. Other than his own body, he could see nothing. 

“Who are you?” 

You know who we are. You have always known. 

Before he could utter another word, a flicker caught Eldric’s attention. Turning, he saw the Flame, or what of it remained. The brazier sat only a few paces behind him and the fire burned low, hardly licking up the side of the last log he had placed within. The light from the Flame was dim, hardly illuminating the space around him. He had run until his legs could carry him no longer, yet it seemed he had hardly gone more than a few feet. Other than the brazier, only one other item could be seen in the dim light. On shaking legs, Eldric stumbled over to the basket filled with carved wooden figurines. Though he never knew who the wooden faces depicted, they felt familiar to him. 

We have always been here. 

As he had countless times before, Eldric gazed into The Dark. For the first time, something gazed back. 

Countless shrouded figures peered back at him from the abyss. Though the details of each face were unintelligible, they were familiar. For decades, he had spent every waking moment with them. Every time he stared into the emptiness surrounding him, they had stared back, calling to him. 

Questions raced through Eldric’s mind as he tried to process what he was seeing. Why had he never heard or seen them until now? Why were they there? Why had they tormented him for so long? Why was he here?

“Why?” The single word was all he could find the strength to utter, yet that one word held the weight of decades filled with suffering in solitude.

For a long moment, there was only silence. Eldric couldn’t find the strength to utter the word again. 

As there are those who walk in The Light, so there are those who walk in The Dark. 

Hundreds of voices spoke as one, reverberating within Eldric. He could hear the voices of men, women, and children.

As has been done since the creation of Light and Dark, the Keeper must maintain the divide. One cannot exist without the other, nor can they exist in tandem. The Flame is the gate, and you the gate’s Keeper. Though all must come to an end, there can be no end to the divide. Should Light and Dark unite as once they were, creation too would return to the abyss whence it came. 

Silence rung throughout the abyss as the voices quieted. Their words hung heavy in the air with a sense of finality. Eldric waited for them to continue, but they stayed silent, as if waiting for his reply. 

Flickering drew his gaze back to the brazier. The Flame was almost entirely gone, only the faintest blue of the fire remained, as though desperately hanging on to life while waiting to see what Eldric would do. He knew a decision needed to be made, he just didn’t know what. 

Gazing into the abyss once again, Eldric looked past the shrouded figures to the darkness beyond. Deeper than the darkest shadows, he could almost see shapes form and dissolve. Goliath figures dissolved into hundreds of smaller outlines. Humanoid shifted to beast, then into nothing, only to form elsewhere into something unrecognizable.

The Dark.

All at once, Eldric understood. The Flame was dying, the gate between The Light and Dark growing weak. Two sides now stood dangerously close to combining. As a Keeper, it was Eldric’s duty to keep the Flame alive. Determination, frustration, and desperation battled for control as his mind searched for the answer. He knew that the logs he supplied the flame for decades was no longer enough. 

A sudden stab of pain pulled his gaze down to his hand, where he found he was grasping tightly to something. Leaning closer to the dying Flame, he opened his palm. The unfinished figurine he had been working on last lay in his hand. From a cut in his thumb, a thin smear of his blood marred the surface of the figures unfinished face.

The figurine was of himself. He had thought the talisman unfinished, for the features were undefined, almost as if the creator wasn’t entirely sure what the person they were supposed to replicate actually looked like. Just as he had long ago forgotten the features of his own face. 

Understanding, resignation, and finally acceptance rolled through Eldric. He knew what he needed to do. Clenching the small wooden figure one more time, he held his hand over the last of the flickering flame.

The Rebirth.

As Eldric opened his palm, flames leapt to meet the figure as the Keeper gave himself to The Flame. 

January 08, 2024 09:59

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