The Hall of Doors
Zel Barok, Finder, Level VIII
I strode down the darkened path between the pillars.
Beside me, I listened to the methodical footfall of the guards.
Every step droned out, timed, precise, and never missing a beat.
I was one thing as a Level VIII Finder. A thing that meant I could win most fights I entered, no matter what I took on in this violent dimension. As a Level VIII, I’d completed the necessary training of not only the Androx Special Forces Corps, but the Celestial Guard training, too, meaning I could comfortably slip into the role of a protector for one of the 10 Families if my life as a Finder didn’t work out.
And yet, even as a Finder, I had my limitations. The towering ten-foot tall Hall of Doors guards that strode beside me, ensuring I didn’t stray off the main path, were one such limitation.
They weren’t human. Of course they weren’t human. Though I was only half human myself, to be fair.
The guards weren’t of any known biological race in the galaxy.
They belonged to the Hall of Doors, and they could not leave or operate beyond it.
Not for the first time and not for the last, I surreptitiously ticked my gaze to the side and stared at the reflection of the closest guard in the two moats that ran along the stone path I was striding along.
They were fashioned to look like two enormous men with the heads of jackals. Though I didn’t know that much about human history, I could appreciate they bore a resemblance to Anubis from the Old Earth religion of the Egyptians.
I was on a long, narrow, dark stone path that led straight toward a door 100 meters away.
Above me, there was no ceiling – nothing to keep back the luminescent glow of the stars beyond.
The Hall of Doors was on a moon. Or perhaps a geological construction was a better way to describe this place. A moon has a specific celestial origin. Moons orbit larger planetary objects. This place chose where and when it appeared.
Though there was no ceiling above to hold back the lack of atmosphere and the crushing vacuum beyond, that did not matter.
You couldn’t die in the Hall of Doors. Unless one of the guards killed you, that was.
“Do not stray,” the one to my left suddenly rumbled as my foot shifted half a millimeter off course.
As soon as the creature’s deep, rumbling voice echoed out, my back stiffened as fear punched me hard in the back.
I’d fought countless fearsome races throughout the galaxy, from the Bardoxian bulls of the Tenth Cluster, to the Voxa assassins – but none of them could strike fear into me like one of these guards.
They were meant to be undefeatable. And as I slipped my unassisted gaze to the side and let it lock on the darkened pool that separated my narrow path from the wide walkway the massive dog-guard was striding along, I could see why.
There was something otherworldly about them. It wasn’t just that they’d been fashioned to look like gods from some myth – it was that trapped within their massive obsidian black forms seemed a power like no other.
I was a man of science. As a Finder tasked with locating and delivering any object the 10 Families desired, I had to be. It was through a proper understanding of natural forces that one gained mastery over their environment.
And yet the guards always reminded me there was something beyond mere facts.
“We approach. Prove yourself worthy,” the guard to my right demanded in a booming voice that shook through the black stone floor.
Though many a man had tried to scan this Hall of Doors before, none had been able to penetrate its defenses and discover precisely what it was made of, let alone how its remarkable technology worked.
It was forbidden to bring any form of technology onto this moon, and beyond the simple clothes on one’s back, they had to come alone and unassisted. If you possessed internal scanners built into your body – like I did – you had to switch them off on pain of death.
Though as a Level VIII Finder I was rarely out of my sophisticated neural armor, down here, I was in nothing more than a flight tunic. Trim and black, it was cut high at my defined neck and easily accommodated my strong build with its variable weave.
But what was on the outside hardly mattered. Within me, I had some of the most technically sophisticated implants this dimension could offer. They were built into my endoskeleton, ensuring that even without armor, I was a formidable foe.
As I took another step, and the door at the end of this long walkway finally came into focus, I pushed every extraneous thought from my mind.
I narrowed my gaze, held my breath, and focused on the mission at hand.
“Prepare your mind,” the guard to my right spoke in another deep rumble that pushed through the room, shaking the forever-dark pool by my side and making me wonder just how deep it was.
For all I knew, it traveled right through the center of the moon and terminated on the dark side of this mysterious rock.
Unlike normal celestial bodies, this moon had a permanent dark side and a permanent light side. It didn’t matter where it was oriented and what light source struck it – one side absorbed all light and the other reflected it.
It was yet another mystery to add to the list of impossible-to-explain curiosities about this place.
“Only those who are worthy can pass through a door,” one of the guards rumbled.
I ticked my gaze down to the pool beside me and saw a reflection of the massive dog-headed beast as he continued to stride forward, measuring his pace so he never left my much shorter form behind.
The guard’s skin was otherworldly. At once it looked like it was made from carved and polished gem, then in another moment, it looked just as real and tactile as skin.
No one knew which race created the guards and the Hall of Doors. But they, like all other races in this forever-warring dimension, had known the trappings of power. It isn’t always enough to have the largest armies and most powerful warriors. People often respond to stories more so than reality. It is those who act as if they were born to rule that often rise to the top.
And thus it was with the 10 Families.
Of all the separate powers that had risen and fallen throughout the long, violent history of this dimension, it was the 10 who had lasted the longest.
They came from different races, and yet, over the centuries, they had altered their appearances, picking up the styles of beauty and privilege from various races and amalgamating them into their own forms until all the 10 essentially looked like each other.
The 10 – just like whatever long-lost race created this place – understood that one of the most fertile grounds for controlling people was through their most sacred mythologies. So they – just like the guards who still strode beside me – understood the power of becoming someone else’s God. Subjugate someone, remove their power, and take on their iconography, and you too can ascend.
… I was vaguely aware of the fact that I never thought like this – at least not when I wasn’t here, surrounded by this mysterious, lightless black rock with the beauty of the galaxy glistening through an open ceiling beyond.
Maybe it was the place itself – or, more realistically, some unseen technology having an effect on my mind – but I always found my thoughts slipping into places I would never go ordinarily when I came here.
The ordinary me asked no questions. I simply did as I was told – a dutiful guard, a perfect Finder.
Not every soldier was suited to becoming a finder – few had the skill. Even fewer had the patience to track some object or prey throughout the darkest, furthest reaches of endless space.
I was born patient. A soldier from birth, I’d grown up on one of the central army worlds, and from the day I’d been old enough to hold a gun, I’d known the secret to winning was waiting.
“Prepare your mind, and prepare your sacrifice,” the guard to my left stated in its deep, rolling voice that reminded me easily of thunder tumbling over some vast alien plain.
My sacrifice? It had been prepared for me. Clutched in my left hand was the only object I’d been permitted to take onto the moon – apart from the clothes that covered my back. It was a Galazar pendant – one of the rarest and most beautiful gems in the known universe.
“The hall awaits,” the guard to my left rumbled.
Once more I fixed my gaze on the door quickly coming up before me. For a moon that otherwise had some of the most impressive technology the universe had ever seen, that door was nothing more than a stone archway that looked as if it had been carved in a single night. It was rough, badly hacked, and even from several meters away, my eagle-eyed, sharp gaze could pick up the scratch marks over the stone.
“You approach the door. Ready yourself.”
I was ready. This wasn’t the first time I’d gone through the Hall of Doors, and it wouldn’t be my last.
I finally reached that carved stone door. The entire time I had been walking down that narrow pathway, I’d been separated from those dog guards by two deep moats – but now the moats terminated, and for the first time, I stood side-by-side with those megalithic beasts.
I did not turn to look at them directly, even though my stomach tingled with the urge to try.
Yet another rule of the Hall of Doors was that you could not look one of the guards directly in the eye. Do so, and you’d be skewered right through with one of the massive black spears they clutched in their huge hands.
“You have reached the doorway. Stride through, offer your sacrifice, and prepare yourself.”
I knew the routine – any finder sent here had to.
I pressed my hands flat on the stiff fabric of my pants and bowed. I still did not face the guards, and rather directed my reverence at the cold, darkened doorway in front of me. Light didn’t behave normally in this hallway. Hell, nothing behaved normally here, from the fact I wasn’t popped like a blood-filled balloon as the vacuum of space opened out beyond, to the rather pointed fact that I was being shadowed by two dog-headed men.
That did not matter. This doorway – and critically, what lay beyond it – was different.
Though I had built a lifetime convincing others I was strong and I would never back down from a fight, my gut unavoidably clenched as I directed my gaze forward through that formless, dark mass in front of me.
To pass through a doorway was to go beyond the veil of existence – or at least that was the colorful way these guards described it. In reality, it was to access a stable, timed temporal wormhole. Though no one had ever managed to scan the Hall of Doors, anyone with a functioning understanding of modern physics could appreciate what this place was. Whatever race this moon had originally belonged to, they’d done something the modern universe could only imagine. They’d isolated and essentially tamed the temporal wormholes that perforated the very fabric of reality. Wormholes that theoretically led not just to other times, but to other temporal-spatial systems. And that, why that was just a fancy way of saying other dimensions.
“Purify your thoughts and enter,” both of the guards said in time behind me, their droning voices more than powerful enough to shake through my legs.
I staggered forward, and the next thing I knew, I took a step right through that darkened doorway.
A step through time and space.
To the guards behind me, you were only meant to cross through the Hall of Doors if you had some noble mission in mind. Yeah, well, here’s the thing: nobility did not exist in this universe anymore. It had been plundered, broken, and redefined until it was nothing more than a tool of the 10 Families. The only way to get ahead – the only way to survive – was to serve the 10.
And I would serve them.
For I only knew how to do one thing – continue no matter the costs. Keep fighting, because it was precisely when you put down your gun that you were swallowed by this indifferent galaxy and your meaningless existence wiped away forevermore.
As I walked through the darkness, it swallowed me, and I let it. For men like me would always deserve to be swallowed.
The rest of Finder’s Gate Episode One is currently available from most ebook retailers.