The man wakes to wind whipping through the hem of his ragged cloak. The horizon is flat obsidian; a plane of dark glass that stretches to the limits of his vision. From behind unbroken clouds, the ruddy glow of the dying sun sheds just enough light for the man to see his barren surroundings.
Enough. No more.
A familiar psalm, its origin lost to memory, echoes in the recesses of his mind. The man leans into the crook of his elbow and coughs, a noise like the last shake of an adder’s rattle.
Another day. Why does there always have to be another?
His throat is as dry as the waste, his stomach a gaping pit consuming itself. He is too tired to even mar his flesh in protest, past such petty acts. Yet the crooked scars stand out on his forearm in remembrance, his defiant tributes half-hidden beneath the layers of dirt.
Eventually, the man finds the strength to push himself upright. He orients by the halo of the sun and begins to walk.
Fool. Why even bother?
Drifts of black sand migrate across the glass. The wind is ceaseless, nothing to break its howling passage. Voices whisper in it, dark and hollow; the cries of a thousand ghosts.
The man pulls the hood of his cloak low to shield his face.
Occasionally, in the perpetual dusk, he passes polished spires and domes that jut out of the glass, the remnants of once-mighty towers and citadels; tops worn smooth, tips sharpened to gleaming needles. He does not stop. Even if he could find a way into their buried depths, he knows what he is looking for does not rest beneath them.
Where there is a way in, there must be a way out.
The man does not remember when he came to this place. All he remembers is that there had been something before it. Another world. And others before that; some cold and empty, some glassy and windswept like this one. All dead or dying.
He hopes that one day he will find a different world, a better world; a place where things grow. He pictures the greenery of that unseen paradise in his dreams; plants that sprout from the earth in verdant mounds, cool pools speckled with reeds and water lilies, mighty trees spreading their branches overhead. Occasionally the man will find a bush jutting from a fissure in the glass, leaves already faded to brown. He strips the stems to fill his belly and chews on the roots as he walks. It only makes his hunger worse.
Should’ve died long ago. Should be with them, those howlers.
In the back of his mind, the man knows it is not normal, knows other humans could not live as he does. Some hidden force sustains him, some energy animating his limbs each day to walk. He dreads it, even as he longs to forget it.
God of thresholds, find us here. Close our eyes. For so long, waiting.
Yet when he does lie down, he will wake again and forget, begin to walk, out of habit.
It is easier when he forgets.
The man does not remember when he came to this world, but he does remember how. It haunts his dreams. The gate, an arched portal of blasted stone with runes above the threshold. And other gates before it, like the first. Doorways from nowhere to nowhere. Empty, unless you happened upon them at the right time.
There is another gate here. On this world. The man is certain of it. There is always more than one.
Another world to hope for.
The man walks until the sun’s red gleam cracks the horizon. Its refracted light glints off the endless glass, casting strange, rufescent patterns into its abyssal depths. There are things down there — the man has seen them, buried in the world’s final moments. Figures. Gaping mouths or hands that grasp upward; the bloated gestures of the dead. Yet he can never tell if he is imagining them.
He sleeps when the sun’s light has faded, not trusting himself to keep his bearings without the shrouded sun as his compass. The wind tears through his bundled rags, the sound lulling him to sleep.
“Leave him, Misha. We don’t know what he’s doing here. We can’t stop for him.”
The man blinks, the distant voices like shards buried deep within his dreams. Such pleasant dreams. Green and blue. From some distant memory, the man recalls others talking like this — other people, other humans. Their words are a smooth babble, too indistinct to recall sense or meaning.
He raises himself shakily onto his elbows.
Two children watch him from half a dozen paces in the murky dawn. Like him, they are bundled in rags to keep the sand from their exposed skin. Both are dark and skeletal, caked with the black dust of the glass. It is the girl who is speaking. The boy leans on a staff for support, the wood ossified by the elements. At the man’s movement, he limps a step closer.
“What are you doing here, so far into the glass?” the boy asks.
“Misha!” The girl hisses at him.
“Are you looking for it as well? The one that opens?” The boy goes on, not listening. “You must be. There’s no other reason to be out here. Do you know the way?”
The man does not answer, not trusting his tongue. The gate. It has been so long. So long since there were others searching with us.
“You can come, if you want,” Misha says. “My sister thinks she knows the way. The one we came through is closed now, so we’re trying for it. Between the three of us, perhaps we can find it.”
His sister has already turned from the conversation, striding in the direction of the sunrise. Misha takes a few steps after her, glancing back. There is a great weight in the man’s gut and he longs to lie there, to wait until the pair have disappeared from view, yet he finds himself drawn helplessly by the boy’s gaze. He rises slowly, his joints aching with reluctance. The boy watches him.
“Ionah, he’s coming.”
“It matters not to me,” his sister calls back.
“Come on.” The boy beckons, flashing a smile this world should have stolen from him years ago.
It does not take long for the man to fall into stride beside the boy. He is faster on his own, but he matches his pace to the child’s awkward hobble. Watching the youngster, there is a tightness in his chest, some tugging sorrow only the cords of his heart still claim. When the boy smiles, the man has to look away.
The man follows the two silhouettes through the dust. A storm has blown up and he wades knee-deep through drifts of sand, no longer able to feel the familiar pressure of the obsidian beneath his bunions. Arching girders stretch above them like the ribs of long-dead creatures, so huge they vanish in the haze. Another reminder of what this world had once been.
The dust sticks in the man’s throat, this antediluvian ash carrying the worn-down bones of the dead and all they’d built. The grains stick in his teeth, thickening to a paste on his tongue. The boy Misha pauses, glancing back, and the man realizes he has been muttering.
Fool to bring us along. No luck for anyone.
“Ionah,” the boy calls to his sister, “we need to stop. Find somewhere to wait out the rest of the storm. The old timer can’t go on like this.”
The storm makes no difference to the man, but he recognizes the pretense for what it is and waits as the girl shuffles back. Wind whips at the trio and they squint at each other through the sand.
“We can’t stop.” The girl glances at her brother, noticing how he leans on his staff. “We don’t have enough water. He’ll have to manage, if he wants to come with us.”
The boy’s resigned laughter is snatched by the gusts. “Guess we’ll have to push through.”
The man nods.
Hours later, the boy’s movements have grown weak. At times, both the man and the girl find themselves standing — one in front, the other behind — to wait as the youngster inches his way through the larger drifts, up the sides of dunes. The boy grips his staff like a fledgling clutching the edge of its nest — the meaning of the image is clear to the man, but the figures it conjures lie beyond his grasp. When at last the boy falls, the man waits for the sister to hurry back and help him to his feet.
“A trick step,” the boy jokes, but his breaths are labored.
The man wonders how the child has nursed his pride for so long in this place. Things must’ve been different for these two once. Better. That thought brings a lick of envy creeping up the back of his throat.
“There’s a line of stones ahead,” the girl tells her brother. “Not far. We’ll rest there — I’ll help you.”
The man watches the two stagger up the face of the final dune, sliding backward with each step. He waits until he is sure they will make it on their own, then presses past. From the peak of the dune, half-buried in the sand, juts an obsidian monolith. The stone is thrice the man’s height and mirrored by neighbors on either side, barely visible amidst the storm. The line of them vanishes in the sand, but the man can see far enough to recognize the curve of a vast circle.
A desperate hope twitches within his chest and he pulls at his collar to shake the sensation of crawling flesh. He is still standing there when the siblings pass him, stumble-sliding into the lee of the pillar. The man follows.
The trio shelter in the crevice between dune and monolith, while the wind howls past on either side. The boy’s voice pitches high with eagerness, but the man cannot shake the chilling sense of something shifting within him — as if sand trickles beneath his very skin.
No, not this. Not again.
“This must be it, Ionah. Somewhere down there…” Despite his exhaustion, the boy’s eyes alight with the knowledge of their journey’s impending end.
“We don’t even know if it will be open.”
The man notices the girl’s sidelong glance at him, as if she expects some speck of wisdom in him. Yet all he can do is brace himself against the turmoil building within.
“It will be open.” The boy clasps his walking stick tight against his chest like a talisman. “I know it will.”
“We don’t have to go far,” the girl says, glancing out into the storm. “We should carry on.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to wait?”
Yet the boy presses. “It’ll be easier to find when the storm ends, won’t it?”
There is an undeniable sense to the boy’s words and he looks towards the man, as if for a parent’s approval. The man surprises himself by nodding, regretting his decision as a triumphant grin flashes across the boy’s face. Somewhere buried deep within him, a memory chimes in recognition; another boy grinning up at him, cupping an object in his palms.
“See? Even he agrees with me.”
“Fine, we’ll wait until the wind starts to die,” the girl replies, tight-lipped.
She pulls a skin from the folds of her robe and uncorks it to take a sip, then passes it to the boy. The skin is so thin, it might as well be empty — the man knows that only luck brought the pair this far. Misha drinks more greedily than he should, then surprises the man by handing it along. The girl makes a muttered protest, but the boy is adamant, pressing it on their guest.
“You need this more than we do.”
The man does not need it, but he cannot help himself. He squeezes the slightest trickle past his lips. The water is a cool caress. The little rivulets of joy run over his tongue and along the cracked muscles of his throat. He takes a breath. He barely realizes he has closed his eyes, until he opens them again and sees the two children watching him.
The storm does not abate for several hours. Sand piles high around the monolith where they shelter. The boy drowses, head tucked against his sister’s shoulder, but the girl does not sleep. She watches the storm — and the man. She is careful not to make it obvious, but she does not drift off, not even for a moment. As for the man, he listens.
He could find the gate, even in the storm, but he waits for the children. Some forgotten part of him has surfaced, resisting even the pull of that deep, nameless force within him. So he listens and waits for the turmoil to subside. His mind must be clear when he reaches the gate. He knows this, yet the reason remains beyond his reach. He can feel the portal’s presence, a familiar hum that sends tremors down his spine; a resonance beyond the limits of human hearing. Now he is no longer moving, he can discern it clearly. Close.
The man aches for another drink of the waterskin, but that fragment of memory sticks in his mind: the smiling boy. And other smiling children, mirrored in the boy’s eyes.
No. Taking the water would be wrong.
Yet at some point, the children would no longer need it. If the world on the other side proved as barren as this one, their feet would begin to drag, until its precious contents would be of no use to them.
Monster, thinking of such things.
Yet the man cannot help himself. He is always so thirsty.
When the wind eases, the girl shakes her brother awake, the two standing to stretch their limbs. The man slowly joins them, his own aches too calcified to stretch away. Below them is a vista, visible through the settling dust. The monolith where they sheltered sits on the lip of a vast basin, so large the edge vanishes in the thinning distance. The glass below is covered by a sheen of blowing sand.
It’s there, somewhere. The man licks his cracked lips.
The trio pick their way down the face of the dune. It is slow going on the steep, wind-blasted slope. The boy has rediscovered his dignity and hobbles apart from his sister again. His limping gait impedes their progress. When they finally reach the layer of obsidian at the bottom, the boy hesitates.
“Come on, Misha. We have to cross it to get there.” The girl’s tone is unusually patient, a flicker of concern.
The boy laughs. “I don’t know why, but I’m afraid,” he tells the man. “Like it’s going to pull me down. Like I’m going to drown in it. I dream of it when I sleep. Every time I have to cross it again, I lose my nerve.”
Drown in it. The phrase is unfamiliar, but the man implicitly understands what the boy means. Like it will consume you. He wonders if the children have seen the figures within the glassy depths. He waits as the youngster takes his first shaky steps.
“Just keep your eyes ahead,” the girl says to her brother. “Pretend it’s not there.”
Pretend it’s not there. Forget the dreams.
Now the hum of the gate is an insistent rhythm, rattling the inner cornices of the man’s ear. He digs a finger into the thick wax, but it doesn’t help. The hum is coming up through his legs, his ribs, his very bones. His teeth knock together in the back of his mouth like loose stones.
They set off across the plain. The wind is almost gone. Only the occasional dust-devil wanders across the basin, eddies in the wake of a typhoon. Yet the man can feel the tension in the air, a gathering thickness that prickles on his tongue. He strides ahead, almost level with the girl, while the brother does his best to keep up.
It is not long before they see it.
A black speck rising out of the glass like a mirage. The air is unusually clear. High above them, the man can make out the silhouette of the red sun through its penumbral cloud. He begins to walk faster, as quickly as his abused limbs can take him.
No, no, not again. Not this.
The girl notices his sudden pace and glances back toward her brother.
“Misha, hurry! We’re almost there.”
She slows, but the man does not. The darkness is rising within him, pressing him onward, faster and faster like some infernal beast. He cannot stop himself. He hears his own pounding feet on the glass.
“Wait, stop.” The girl’s shout comes from far away.
“Ionah, slow down!”
Go, go. Let her go, let them both go. Better they are far from us.
The man’s feet are leaving bloody footprints behind him, his calloused soles cracking beneath him. His molars are locked as he struggles against the darkness propelling him forward.
They will be stuck. Here, forever. You must stop it. Stop.
A flood of memories wash over him, the glowing lintels of a dozen archways, a hundred crossings, a thousand fellow souls — the faces of young and old, the fleeting conversations in the moments before the passage. The man does not understand. Not yet.
End it. Finish it.
The gate is visible ahead. An empty archway. Nowhere to nowhere. Yet the runes above it are alight and the man knows what will happen, even as it begins. He’s seen it before; the ripple of liquid blackness spreading across the opening, the shimmering iridescence of the void-gate, a portal that is their only escape from this dying world.
Coming, coming again. You cannot—
Wham. A dozen paces from the gate, the man feels a jarring impact against the bone of his knee. Even the nightmarish energy boiling within cannot push his body through that collision. His legs tangle, left wrist shattering as it breaks his fall. His temple hits the hard surface of the obsidian, the glass reaching up to swallow him.
At last. A blissful emptiness envelopes him, the tender ache in his chest easing as he thinks of the children. Better this way. Safer.
Yet even as his mind begins to drift, relief sours to dread. The man can feel his old bones pushing themselves upright, as if by their own volition. The rhythmic hum of the gate surges within him and it will not let go — will not let him lie down and fade away into the welcoming dark. Vision blurring, the man finds himself rising, hands merely limp props for his trembling body.
The girl stands at the threshold of the gate, holding the boy’s walking stick in one hand, its end bloodied. She beckons her brother toward her, even as he stands frozen, staring at the old man’s crumpled form.
“Why did you do it?” he wails at his sister.
“There’s something not right about him, Misha,” the girl calls back, her jaw jutting. “Look at what he just did — how he tried to get to the gate before us. No one should be able to move like that, not after weeks in the glass.”
“You don’t know what he was trying to do.” Misha stands irresolute. “Maybe he just wanted to get away from this place, same as us.”
“There’s something dark in him,” the girl insists, and the man feels an answering rumble in his belly. “Something dangerous, something twisted. I don’t trust him.”
“You shouldn’t have done it.” The boy is angry now, not listening to his sister’s words. “It was wrong. He might die here without our help. You don’t know anything about him. What he’s been through.”
“I know that I don’t want him on the other side with us.” The girl takes a pleading step towards her brother, unwilling to move from the gate. “Please, Misha. We’ve made it this far. Come with me. Just see what’s on the other side”
There are tears in the boy’s eyes now and he is shaking his head. “It’s not right. It’s not how abba and amma would’ve wanted.”
“Abba and amma didn’t see what this place became after the glassing. Misha, come on.”
The boy takes a clumsy step towards the man, but the girl rushes to stop him. Her fearful gaze darts in the man’s direction as she seizes her brother’s wrist.
“No, Ionah,” the boy calls, “we need to help him!”
The man watches as the girl begins to drag her brother toward the gate. She is taller than him, stronger, and the slippery obsidian offers little purchase to the child’s feet. He screams in protest, the noise echoing off the surface of the glass. The man does not move. An iron grip has tightened around his muscles and the sinews, the inner darkness railing against it. But, for once, his resolve does not break.
Go, little one. Better this way.
The hunger is expanding within him, pressing against his skull, roiling in his belly, welling out of the corners of his eyes; an aching need the man can barely contain. He no longer feels the pain of his cracked wrist, his busted knee, his bloody feet. There is only the immense pressure of the gate, pulling him like a lodestone, tilting the horizon so it almost feels as if he is slipping inward. His head feels ready to split open.
The girl drags her brother to the threshold.
“I’m doing what is best for you,” she calls out. No tears in her eyes. She glances at the man lying still and, for a second, he sees her resolve falter.
No, no, do not turn back, do not. Run, run away. Out and away.
As if she can hear him, the girl finds her courage. Her head bows and she shoulders her way into the portal, tugging her brother after her. As she steps through the rippling iridescence, her body disappears. Gone. Yet the boy makes a last, desperate grab for the edge of the archway. As his sister’s form is obscured by the opaque surface, his tiny fingers clench on the stone, holding face and shoulders on the other side.
“Please,” he calls back to the man. “You can make it. You can come with us. Please, I can’t hang on much longer.”
The portal is already closing and the man knows once the boy’s form fades from this world, it will be too late. Too late. Enough, no more. Never again.
“Don’t,” he whispers, his mouth struggling to form the half-remembered sounds.
The boy hears him. A longing blooms on his face, a need greater than even the man’s thirst. His little nails catch on the stone. “Please,” he begs.
Something stronger than the darkness pulls the man to his feet, a desire he had forgotten, a need that should have died long ago. Perhaps it will be better this time. Different.
You never could say no to him.
Stumbling footsteps carry him across the stretch of glass, smearing bloody streaks behind him. His knee jars with each shuddering step, his left hand useless at his side. The boy’s teary face stares at him from the gate, a drowning child, daring to hope. Dirty fingers begin to slip on the rough stone, his face sliding through the shimmering liquid. The man reaches out. Catches hold as the boy lets go.
Darkness greets him.
It is familiar, somehow. Darker than the glass of the plain, darker than the blanketing night of the dying world. It is the darkness of the void, the place between, his own inner darkness.
Breath catches in the man’s throat. He flails for the safety of the gate, as the dread within him answers. Voices cry in the space between the worlds, call to him, call within him, as the man tumbles after his child-guide, his folly.
Awaken, feed. Open the gullet wide. Another to consume.
And the man remembers. The images come flooding back and he remembers each terrible moment of realization, always too late. Gate after gate. Crossing after crossing. World after world. As it awakens with him, the swallowing dark concealed in his belly; a crude weapon honed by the digestion of time and emptiness.
A torrent of horror engulfs him. Images from his nightmares. Bloated faces, stretched and gaping mouths, flesh sloughing as features dissolve. Once there were friends. Family. Forget, forget. The quiet lily-ponds, the blushing gardens, the cobbled squares; all blurring as they descend into the maw of heat and blackness.
Leave nothing behind.
And, at last, the man remembers how the fiery death would pour from his bones, his limbs, his fingertips, an inferno turning all to slag and ash. The power within him, called to its true purpose.
Not like this.
Stepping from the other side of the gate, the man sees the girl, his glowing silhouette reflected in her pupils. The boy looks up through tear-stained eyes, joy falling away.
Surely, not him. Let him be safe at least.
That desperate, foolish part of him — the part that watched the children in longing, in envy, in aching remembrance; the part that dragged itself to the threshold — it pulls the boy out of his sister’s slack grip, tugs his body close, unfolding him in their arms.
As if that will protect him.
The man and the children stand in a glade. Huge redwoods rise hundreds of feet above them, stringy with peeling bark and lichen. Birds and insects call through the dense underbrush, a delicate symphony. The air is thick with the scent of loam and resin. The richness of it is an overpowering wonder, which the man drinks deep, in those final moments.
When he awakens, the man is alone. A perfect plain of glass stretches to the horizon.
A blackened archway sits at his back, leading from nowhere to nowhere. The man is crouched on his heels. His rags are gone and he is naked, body scoured clean.
In his arms, he cradles an ashen skeleton, no larger than a child. A slight shift of his grip and the bones crumble to dust. The man tries to catch the falling ash, but it slips through his fingers, falling to the glass below. A faint wind carries it away.
He sits for a long time, staring at the pale imprint of the body on his thighs, his groin, and his belly. His hands tremble, vibrating in tune with a rhythm deep within. There should be something else here, someone else here, but only the glass remains. The man does not remember why he came to be there, but he remembers how he came there.
The gate. A voice not his own. Where there is one, there will be others.
The man rises and begins to walk across the glass, toward the rising sun.
W.A. Hamilton is a Canadian speculative fiction writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His short fiction has been published in Daikaijuzine and Teleport Magazine, and he is currently working on a debut novel. In his spare time he enjoys board games, bouldering, and hiking. You can follow him on Twitter @WAHamiltron or Threads @hamiltronic.