I understand.

I will speak to you tomorrow.

Julian Auros, formerly the Iron General, to High Priest Azoroth

 

There was a gaping hole in the mass of thicket at the end of the road, and a monstrous stack of branches by the opening.

Sarea looked between the two and thought, this is going to be the biggest mistake I ever make.

“Master Junker did have a solid go at it some time,” Ionas said. “I had a clearer path of entry, but of course, he couldn’t get through the door. You not afraid of small spaces?”

She shook her head. “Only that I’ll not see a turn and walk into the thorns.”

He twisted his fingers, and a ball of light appeared in his hands. “Here,” he said, and tossed it at her.

She fumbled the catch, but it stuck to her skin, warm but sticky like sap.

“Come along,” Ionas said cheerfully, and ducked into the tunnel.

Sarea followed slower. As pale as the light looked under the sun, it glowed soft blue in the dark. She turned to look at the thicket. Three paces in the greenery became old woody branches, thick with spikes, working down to trunks as solid as any young tree.

The path twisted and turned between the trunks, barely wide enough for her. She had to grip her skirt tightly or catch it on a vine and lose most of it. As tight as it was, she wasn’t really afraid. Something on the air, as perfumed as Mistress Junker’s garden, defanging the close danger.

She came upon a wall on her right, running her free hand along the stone. In the light, she could see faded paint, in blue and gold and white, pocked and scratched by jealous thorns. The path followed it, turning sharply with the corner, then up to a doorway. No door, though. She touched rusted iron hinges still screwed into the stone, and stepped through.

The first thing she thought was, the plants didn’t get in. Neither did insects or animals. The building was solidly square, larger than she could’ve imagined. The only thing in the corners and on the ceiling were Ionas’ lights. Then she thought, beautiful.

Ionas leaned against a wall rich with colour. A display of animals and birds, dancing over green rolling hills. On the next wall, the hills became forest, thick dark trees with wide, ancient trunks. On the third –

She gasped.

So much water. A vast expanse, stretching out in intricate art to a distant pale horizon. She stumbled backwards, door frame hard against her back. How…?

“It was called an ocean,” Ionas said. “An expanse of water larger than a thousand lakes, ten thousand rivers. A thing of storms and cold depths. It tasted like salt. There were two of them.”

“Two?” she managed. How could there be that much water in one place?

“And at least three smaller bodies called seas. We sailed across them.” He straightened. “Are you…”

She shook her head. “I’ll be fine.”

The ceiling was midnight blue, painted in constellations only a little wrong. She said as much. Ionas shrugged. “It’s been a thousand years.”

The floor – glittering grey stone – dipped down in the middle, where a pool of water stood, perfectly clear. She stayed far from the pool, trying not to touch it. Some things never stopped being sacred.

The only thing this could be was a temple. A place of holiness, evoking the world before.

“If it was this beautiful, why are we told it was ugly?” she said.

Ionas nodded at the wall behind her. “Take a look.”

She turned.

Great black buildings filled the last wall, reaching to the ceiling. They had windows, clear and glittering in some long-lost sunlight, and people behind the windows. She looked up at the stars.

“That isn’t ugly,” she said.

“No?”

“No,” she said. “They could touch the sky.”

He laughed. “I’ve found stories that said they went to the moon.”

“Now that is impossible,” she declared, waving her hand upwards. “How can you go beyond the sky?” The light moved with her, trailing bright lines in the air. She swung around to face him. “It’s a roof. No one can go through a roof.”

He snorted. A flick of his fingers, and her light disappeared. “Would you believe me if I told you I know where to find moon rock?”

“No,” she said. “Why are you showing me this? Why couldn’t old Master Junker show everyone?”

“There was a magical barrier in front of the door. He got a glimpse, nothing more. And…” Ionas hesitated. “Do I need a reason to show it to you? It’s stunning.”

She folded her arms. “This is a holy place.”

He nodded. “Something like that.”

“It’s a holy place, so you can’t lie here,” she said.

He opened his mouth, shut it again. Said, “You were taught the oddest mix of truth and lies, Sarea Sahar. Sure enough, I can’t.” He raised his eyebrows. “Neither can you.”

So it is true. Good. She’d only heard it as legend. “So tell me the truth,” she said. “Stop lying to me.”

He focussed on her, dark blue eyes as deep as the ocean behind her. She hadn’t a word to describe them before, only the shadows that made them seem grey and old. “Will you accept it as the truth?”

She paused. If it was true that he couldn’t lie here, she’d have to. For a moment, she wanted to walk back out the tunnel and run to the depths of the world, where he couldn’t find her, where she didn’t have to touch that unbearable mystery, things that couldn’t be real –

But Sarea nodded, and that was that.

 

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