Chapter 7: The Gates of Eternity (draft)

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The rush of the air out of the airlock blew Niht, Iarann, and Amhran onto the barren surface of the asteroid.

Niht’s lungs burned. He wanted to inhale, but there was no air in space, no heat. Only the lifeless emptiness of the void yawning out into eternity seeking all that it might devour.

At least Airoh and Karom would be spared this fate. They would have to live alone, but at least they would live.

Fate was a cruel mistress, but if this was her plan, there was little they could do to stop her.

Niht gasped. He couldn’t help it. He needed to breathe, needed air.

The capillaries on his exposed skin hadn’t burst from the boiling blood within them, and his eyes hadn’t frozen in the vacuum of space. Why? 

Standing up, Niht stared defiantly into the blackness of space and inhaled a calm, deliberated breath. 

Air rushed into his lungs.

“We can breathe!” He shouted to the others and rushed to their side. “Breathe, dammit. There is air.”

Confusion covered their faces as they pulled life back into their bodies.

“How is that possible?” Iarann panted.

“The asteroid is too small to have an atmosphere,” Amhran sat up and caught her breath.

“I don’t know either, but we have to get out of here before the soldiers realize we aren’t dead and come for us.”

The other two nodded.

They scurried away from the domes they lived in off toward a mountain range not far away.

Cold night air pirouetted around them as they traversed the bleak terrain. Nothing about this place acted like it should.

While the moon traversed the sky in a familiar arc, the stars remained stubbornly fixed in space and time. Even if their subtle movement was beyond notice, the asteroid was small enough, they should have moved relative to them.

Ahead, the mountains loomed like sleeping titans waiting the call to rise from their deathlike slumber.

The ground before the nearest mountain was littered with broken obelisks and stele inscribed with the script of the lost empire.

They followed the trail to the gates of an ancient temple buried into the side of the mountain.

“That shouldn’t be here?” Amhran said. “I’ve studied everything I could about this place since I was a child to prepare myself from for the trials. This was a lifeless rock when the Neevh Tiar brought the first refugees here.”

“Nothing about this place makes sense.” Iarann said. “I felt it from the moment we arrived.”

Niht chuckled darkly. “I always feel that way, so I ignored it.”

They stood at the dusty gate into the once intricately engraved temple. Over the centuries or millennia, large chunks of the wall and ceiling had fallen, tearing holes in the scenes depicted on them.

“It is refuge.” Niht said. “Their scanners might be thrown off long enough for us to either wait them out or to devise a plan.”

“Not to mention,” Iarann said, “The former inhabitants might have left something useful for us inside.”

Amhran nodded.

The three walked in between the colossal effigies of masked guards. Each scowled down at them as if judging their intentions.  Their eyes were empty sockets, blank stares, and hollow souls reaching out from the beyond to touch them.

The air itself crackled with power. It smelled of lost dreams and forgotten memories.

Niht thought of his mother and the cinnamon cookies she used to make for him and his brothers. The scent of them lingered in the air just like it used to in their house when he would come home from school. It wasn't the only familiar scent in the air. He swore he could smell the flowers that grew in the woods just beyond his home. Everything here was too familiar, too close to him. It was like the building wanted him to feel at home.

A shallow malaise came over him. Maybe it was the stress of the day, or whatever was causing those memories to surface in him, but all he wanted to do was lay down and sleep. They called to him like a lover in a warm bed beckoning him to unknown pleasures.

Thud.

Something heavy fell behind him. Maybe it was a chunk of rock from the ceiling. He didn't care. For the first time, in a long time, he didn't care about anything. Worry ran so far away from his mind that he doubt it would ever catch up with him again.

Lead filled his legs. His arms hung low. Water flooded his eyes, not from tears but from the sheer heaviness, the burden that he had to bear. He needed to sleep, to rest, to let it all go and drift away. It didn't matter, not here, the soldiers would never find them here. They were safe.

Falling to his knees, he laughed. The echo reverberated through the statues and engravings that filled the large open space. He smiled at the light that permeated the room. It wasn't bright, but it allowed him to see everything clearly.

Niht touched his face. He had forgotten about the mask that covered it. He laughed again, this time out of sheer exhaustion and the joy of finding a place to rest.

Niht didn't really sleep, but the dreams were profound. He lay on the ground, forgetting the weight of his body and experiencing for the first time the subtle lightness of his spirit. Every now and then, he felt as though hands gently caressed him. Not a mother's hands, or a lover’s, not even ones that belong to a friend. It was almost like he ran his hands over his own body, even though that was impossible. He wasn't alone here. They weren't alone here.

Whatever shared the space with them, cared for them tenderly and sweetly. They were safe, but they weren't alone.

He didn't want to struggle against their care. Why would he offend someone who only wanted what was best for him? The sleepless dream held him so close and warm. He could feel a heart beating other than his own. Then he noticed another heart, and another. He felt connected…

No, no, that wasn't right. It wasn't connection. What was it? The word eluded him in his hazy mind. It hid behind the corner peeking out occasionally, but never letting him get a clear enough view to know what it was.

What if a spider made a web, not to catch its prey, but to protect its children.

The dull haze pressed deeper into his mind. It didn't want him to move. It wanted to protect him. No, no, it wanted to protect them. It was a guardian, an ancient soul left here to keep a watchful eye on the students.

It knew the Neevh, and carried out his orders to this very day. It missed having students to care for. It missed having them near.

Long ago, it was forgotten. The neglect of the old masters bred resentment within it. They saw their role as protecting the students, helping them find their path.

She whispered such sweet songs into Niht's ears. Thaner, her name was Thaner. She attended the birth of the endless dreams. She saw the heavens and Hells within them, and guided them between the two.

The soft warm embrace of her invisible arms cradled him so close to her ever beating heart. This was home, and not one built of brick and mortar, but of hope, and ambition, and… And something else. Something more elusive.

Deep down the echo of the blaster shots rang through his mind. He didn't want to give in to the fear. He couldn't allow himself to rest in her tender care.

"Dear mother," Niht said in an almost drunken stupor, "now is not the time. We have to escape we have to be free or they will find us and kill us."

"Hush, hush, don't worry about a thing. You are safe here. I will never let anything bad happen to you. I will never let them in. I will never let you go."

Her voice was sugary sweet and calmed him like a gentle breeze on a warm summer night as the birds sang gently in the distance and rain thundered on the horizon. She was right they were safe here.

As much as he wanted to give in, to just lay down and sleep, to rest in her care, Niht resisted.

Amhran and Iarann fell under her sway and drifted off into the common oblivion of sleep.

The mask on Niht’s face tightened. It dug into the flesh of his cheeks so hard it brought a tear to his eyes. He couldn't sleep.

Forcing himself to his feet, Niht searched the cavernous chamber for any sign of an artifact or person that could be affecting them.

Thaner’s voice emanated from the very stone of the walls.

"Let us go. At the very least don't rob us of our senses. You say you want to defend us like a mother, but a mother wouldn't make us ignore the dangers that are hunting us. A mother would make sure that we are ready to face those dangers head on."

"Rest now, sweet child, I promise nothing bad can happen to you here. If they come, I will destroy them. Truly, I say to you, I only want what is best for all the children of destiny. The gates of eternity are open wide. All you have to do sweet child is enter."

Rage burned within Niht’s heart. She ignored every word he said. She only wanted to control them. No, that wasn't right. None of this was right. They shouldn't be able to breathe in space. The temperature should be so cold they froze solid, but they didn't. No, this was wrong.

"Are you the source of the lie, or just a tool in its arsenal to destroy us?"

Thaner laughed."You really do think that you understand what is happening here, don't you?"

Niht shook his head. And "I have never in my life claims to understand anything. This isn't real. I don't know if this is the after life, or something else, but I know this isn't real."

"If that is what you wish to believe, then I suppose I cannot help you anymore."


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