I

Aldethor opened the door to Hell a long time ago, just to peek inside. He never meant to step through it.

When he fell from the battlements of life and darkness claimed him, he was surprised when he didn’t appear before the Silver Gates. Instead, he awoke on the shores of an island. Bodies littered the beach, washing up as black tidal waves spit them out by the hundreds. Demons of all shapes and sizes writhed among the unfortunate souls, taunting them. It was impossibly cold; he felt the chill in his bones.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” he explained to one of the demons.

“Is that so?” the demon snarled. “You’ll have to talk with the Guardian.”

“Who is the Guardian? Where can I find him?”

The demon pointed to the island’s interior where a mountain rose above the jungle into swirling gray and black clouds. “Go inland until you find a stream. Follow it to the citadel.”

“And then?”

“Be ready to use that,” the demon nodded to the sword strapped to Aldethor’s back.

I was a decent man, Aldethor thought, walking away from the demon towards the jungle. The Guardian will realize I shouldn’t be here.

Aldethor entered the thick brush, cutting through with his sword. He found it difficult to breathe. Fog clung to everything.

As he walked, a childhood memory came to him.

“Son,” his father asked, looking down at him with sad eyes. “Did you steal from the market?”

Aldethor could have been honest with his father and said yes, but he didn’t.

“No,” he said, his hand clenching the stolen coins in his pocket.

Aldethor sensed his father always knew it was him. No one ever caught him.

I was just a boy, he told himself. I didn’t know any better.

II

The jungle thinned the further inland he walked. Death hung in the air. The black leafless trees reached painfully towards the gray sky. He squeezed the wetness out of his clothing. Water droplets fell to the ground every time, but his clothing never dried.

He thought of what would happen when he met the Guardian; what he might say to him.

Another memory came to him.

Aldethor ran from the keep, the stolen Dreadknight’s Blade in hand.

“Kill him!” Arrows flew passed him, sinking into the soil. “Don’t let him get away!”

He couldn’t bear the thought of someone else being in possession of the most formidable sword in the land. Only he could make the best use of it.

He reached back, feeling the warm hilt of Dreadknight’s Blade. It was his by right. The Dreadknight’s Blade never failed him.

III

His exposed skin started turning blue when he reached the river. He needed to drink something soon, but the black oily water rushing over boulders was uninviting. He turned, walking along it, seeing the mountain slowly growing in size as he got closer. No snow rested upon the slopes, which he thought was strange. How can it be this cold and there is no snow?

Something floating in the stream caught his eye: a hobbled shape rising and falling in the rapids. Several shapes. Logs, perhaps. Or fallen trees.

They were bodies, their lifeless limbs twisting about in the rapids. He shuddered anew when he noticed none of them had heads.

Aldethor instinctively reached for his blade. He looked through the trees, searching for signs of movement. He saw now one.

He breathed, trying to warm himself against the cold as he watched the headless bodies float out of sight.

IV

It has be cold enough to snow by now, he thought. The river had widened, cutting back and forth through the trees.

A final memory flooded his mind.

“Spare me, please!”

Aldethor remained silent, not wanting to give the man any hope.

“Why have you come to kill me?!” his opponent said.

“Because I have to,” Aldethor told the weeping man. “If one of my opponents lives, my reputation is tarnished.”

Then Aldethor ended his life.

The trees thinned further as Aldethor climbed to base of the mountain. The cold slowed him with each step, his clothing completely soaked through.

He stopped, seeing more shapes in the river coming toward him; smaller shapes than the bodies.

Heads.

The bodiless heads rushed by. Aldethor fought the temptation to look at the faces. As the last head rotated slowly around in the current – just as the white lifeless cheeks were about to reveal the face of the dead – he looked away and continued walking, feeling the eyes watching him.

V

Aldethor reached the citadel, a red misshapen structure built into the side of the mountain. It looked like a giant bleeding wound. A single tower rose high above, reaching just below storm clouds. The river poured out of a stone archway beneath one of the walls like the tongue of a beast.

I was a decent man, he repeated to himself. The Guardian must let me go. I did nothing different from anyone else.

He approached the keep, feeling it loom over him, threatening to crush him. Massive black iron doors opened as he neared, the rusty hinges crying down from the mountain. Aldethor walked through into the waiting darkness, aching to get out of Hell.

The doors closed behind him and he entered a large hall lit by thousands of torches. The walls climbed inside the mountain. At the far end of the expansive hall was a narrow stone bridge. Beyond it, a waterfall crashed down from somewhere high above. A series of steps wound their way up next to it.

That has to be the way out, he thought, looking around for the Guardian.

Aldethor made his way confidently over the uneven ground to the narrow bridge, listening to the roar of the waterfall. When he was halfway across, a bright flash caught his eye from the far side.

Sparks.

He reached back and pulled the Dreadknight’s Blade free, his hand and the blade becoming one; an extension of his body and mind.

He froze when he neared the end of the bridge, feeling the first tickle of fear he’d felt in a long time. A hunched figure sat on a stool, cloaked in red. Black bones came out of the sleeves. Boney hands held a sword, dark as the deepest oceans. The hooded figure bent over the dark blade, moving it across a stone grinding wheel. Each motion sounded like thousands of screams in unison; the screams of the dying.

The figure stopped sharpening the blade and lifted its head, becoming aware of his presence.

“Are you the Guardian?” Aldethor called.

The cloaked skeleton didn’t move or make a sound. It instead observed him from the dark depths of the hooded cowl.

“Are you the Guardian?” he repeated, impatience brewing like boiling water.  

The hooded figure nodded slowly.

“I don’t belong here,” Aldethor said. “How do I get out?”

The Guardian lifted the black blade away from the sharpening wheel and stood. Aldethor felt suddenly small as the Guardian pointed its blade at him. It was longer than Aldethor was tall and as wide as his broad shoulders. His physicality he’d grown to admire felt insignificant as the Guardian’s blade gleamed in the torchlight; its fatal smoothness seemingly on fire.

“I’d prefer to speak with you before coming to blades,” Aldethor said. “How can I negotiate my passing?”

The Guardian floated silently towards him, coming up the bridge. Then the hood fell away, revealing a black skull with large red eyes. Aldethor took a step back, yet he remained in a striking stance, blade held forth. It wasn’t half the length of the Guardian’s.  

“I suggest you not challenge my blade,” Aldethor said threateningly. “This is the Dreadknight’s Blade. Strongest ever made, even stronger when wielded by my hand.” He refused to reveal his fear, even though he felt it cursing through his veins.

The Guardian approached him, its blade almost within reach. Aldethor’s blood slowed as his limbs became immobile with terror. He tried to think of the right words to convince the Guardian they didn’t need to fight, but his mind remained empty.

“I was a decent man!” Aldethor shouted. “No different from any other man!”

Aldethor lifted his blade then jabbed at the air between them, taunting the Guardian.

“Let me pass,” he commanded.

The Guardian waved the massive black blade effortlessly. Then a pitiless voice roared in Aldethor’s mind:

This death you shall die again and again. You shall be eaten alive. Crushed under the weight of mountains and choked by the cold air of your own breath. You shall awaken each day only to be devoured again by the vain of your voice.

Before Aldethor could defend himself or speak again, the Guardian brought its blade down upon him. Aldethor tried blocking the blow, but the Guardian’s strike was too strong. The blade cut through his own, slicing down through him. Pain was instant and undeniable. A new, warm sensation of wetness erupted in Aldethor’s face. His body went limp, collapsing. He fell from the bridge into the water, drowning in the fatal current. Light turned to darkness as the river swallowed him.

For a time, all was dark. Bubbles rose around him. Then his head surfaced, his body now somewhere else. His eyes stuck open. He saw the gray, dead trees of the forest and the mountain above. The world spun and shifted as the current rotated his head around; his dying mind taking in the last moments.

His hearing left him.

He felt nothing.

Then, at the edge of the river, he saw himself standing there. He tried crying out to himself, but no voice came to him.

He saw himself turn away at the last instant…

…Aldethor opened the door to Hell a long time ago, just to peek inside. He never meant to step through it.