Orian inched down the slanting rooftop, careful not to slip. When he reached the edge he let his legs dangle over, swung his body around so he was lying on his stomach, and slid until he was hanging from the edge of the roof by his hands. Taking a breath, he released, letting himself fall, and landed on the stone side-street with a quiet thump. He stood to his feet.
The moon was out in full and the stars sprinkled the night sky. In the daylight, the streets and the town seemed so small. But now, under the moonlight, the streets seemed so much bigger, so much wilder, like some sort of forbidden city. The very stone from which the town was made seemed to glow with a luminous, dreamlike haze. The night air sent a thrill rippling through him, making him feel awake and alive. There was not another soul in sight. He had the city to himself. Almost.
The street called Moontide ran the length of the town, and was the shortest, easiest way down to the sands of Starside and the sea beyond. But the terraces of Acta were connected by a maze of ladders, footbridges, alleyways, and small staircases that provided shortcuts for those who knew them and wished to remain unseen.
Orian ducked down the side of his own house, toward the back, and walked directly onto the blue slate roof of a house situated on the terrace below his. He gasped and crouched as he spotted the silent procession, more of them coming from sidestreets in every direction, now converging on and drifting down Moontide, forming a great throng that was heading down the hill to the beach of Starside.
Orian scooted to the edge of the roof, swiftly climbed down a ladder, dashed along a footbridge, and darted across the street. The moonlight did not reach the back alleys, and from where he crouched in the shadows Orian could catch glimpses of the figures gliding slowly down the hill in their eerie march. They didn’t seem to touch the ground, yet they bobbed up and down as they passed.
Orian made his way down the slope of the city, ducking this way and that, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, buried in the labyrinth of the hidden parts of town. He had explored nearly every nook and passage in the city. He knew it all by heart. Yet this night, in the slant of moonlight and shadow, in pursuit of beings that were a mystery to him, the entire landscape of the city took on a form foreign and strange.
Orian walked across a short keystone archway that spanned two houses on either side of the street, and down a set of spiral steps that led from a balcony down to the street, emerging onto the last proper street before the beach. Here the sand had been blown up by the wind to form drifts and rest in piles in every corner and crease of stone. The pure white grains of sand sparkled in the moonlight. He dashed across the cobblestones and shimmied through a narrow gap in the broken stone wall that separated the last street from the beach. On the other side of the wall was a small slope, overgrown with tall amber grass that waved in the breeze wafting in from the sea. He crept down the slope as silently as he was able, the hiss of the grass muffling his footsteps.
His foot became tangled in the underbrush, and he stumbled, losing his balance. He fell, tumbling forward, sand flying into his hair and down his shirt. He frantically untangled his foot and stood, finding himself on the white sands of Starside.
The smooth white beach spread out on either side of him, glowing like a ghost in the starlight. On either side of the beach, the hills became tall edifices of rock, charcoal grey in the night, reaching up toward the stars while the swirling curls of foam broke at their feet. The sea looked vast in the night, the dark waters swelling and diminishing like the slow breaths of a slumbering giant.
But it was not the sea that had frozen Orian where he stood. Scattered on the white sands were hundreds of the figures, some clustered together, most standing alone like sentinels, guardians of the night, keepers of the sea. Their robes billowed with the sea breeze, flickering like smoke. Aside from the rustling of their robes, they did not move at all. They were perfectly still, like a legion of statues. They were, all of them, faced out to sea. The sheer number of them made Orian tremble. The tips of his fingers grew cold and the feeling of unease in the bottom of his chest started to grow. He inched backward toward the safety of the tall grass.
Orian saw a flash of movement in the corner of his eye. He whirled around to find one of the figures towering over him.
The being fixed Orian with the otherworldly stare of its glowing red eyes, freezing him where he stood. The being’s stature was far greater than Orian had imagined, and it had a face that was not a face. The two red eyes were set into what Orian would have thought to be a mask, had it not been for the periodic flash of an almost imperceptible blink. Aside from this, the face was unmoving. It was dark, deep grey, with a small rectangle for a mouth and a smooth, flat area where its nose should have been. There were small dark grey lines curling their way from the edges of the face, marking the skin of what would have been its cheeks, like someone had painted the face of the creature. The face peered out at Orian from under a dark hood which shrouded the rest of the head and draped over the being’s great, broad shoulders. Its robes swept down from the shroud, covering the rest of the body like an encasement of fog, swirling and writhing in the shifting air.
The figure, tall and terrible, stood silent.
Orian’s mind went blank. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. All he could do was stand in the shadow of the being, and wait.
Suddenly the figure turned slightly, shifting its great mass to the side, so Orian could see beyond it. He tore his eyes away from those of the creature now standing beside him, and was met with the stares of hundreds of red eyes glowing in the night. Every creature on the beach had turned toward him, silent and still.
Another of the figures came along Orian’s other side. Orian stared up into its inscrutable face. The being gazed at Orian, then raised its head to look toward the other figures, which were now beginning to draw closer together into a crowd on the beach. The figure then returned its gaze to Orian.
Orian thought the creature wanted him to walk toward the group. Images began to coalesce in his mind, of his mother and father, and how worried they would be when they woke in the morning to find him absent from his bed. His mother’s smiling eyes, his father’s hearty laugh. He thought of how foolish he had been to come here. How his curiosity had gotten him into trouble before, but nothing like this. How this might turn out to be his final mistake.
Slowly, he took first one step and then another. The figures kept even with him on either side, seeming to drift instead of walk, like phantoms on the air. The sound of the waves filled his ears in the silence of the beings at his side.
The three of them drew nearer to the crowd, and the fear in Orian began to take on a cold finality. He knew there was no turning back. What he expected to find, he did not know. He just held to the hope that he might see his family again. He felt fear, yes. But there was also the thrill of stepping into the unknown.
They entered the crowd, like passing through a doorway, and Orian was surrounded by the towering figures. Their eyes followed him as he walked, all their identical faces peering down at him, with only the stars above. He passed them one by one, and they parted like the waters to let him through. All Orian could do was take one step, and then another. The way was being made for him.
Finally they passed through the crowd and out the other side, to the edge of the sea. The waves just barely fell short of washing over his feet. He looked around, and found that the mass of shadowy beings behind him had all turned to face the sea once more. Then a long sonic note rose high into the night, the same note he had heard earlier in the safety and comfort of his home. The note continued steadily as the figures continued to gaze out to sea. Suddenly Orian realized that there was more than just dark, swelling waters before him, for a tiny white speck had appeared on the horizon.
As Orian watched, the white dot drew nearer, sometimes visible, sometimes obscured by the swelling water. At moments the dot would be lost in the white sea-foam atop the crest of a wave. But when the sea settled again into its midnight slumber, the dot would appear, still there, shimmering over the dark waters. It came like a ghost, silent, drifting, steady. As it drew nearer, Orian had the impression of crossing a threshold. His destiny was on its way, and it seemed the point of no return was at hand.
He cast a sideways glance at the towering shadows on either side of him, wondering what was going to happen.
The white apparition glided through the water, and it seemed as if the waters parted for it, bowing in reverence and respect as if some passing king was being borne along by the waves. As Orian watched, the glow coalesced into a boat, which drifted slowly toward them on the waters of the deep, and came to rest on the sands of Starside.
The boat was long and narrow. Its graceful, flowing lines curved up from the stern to the bow, which was tall and strong. The bow was carved into a mass of swirling vines that crawled upward to the top, where the largest of the swirls curled itself under, forming a handle. On this handle rested a thick black iron ring, from which hung a lantern glowing with an otherworldly light, encased in an intricate iron frame work, also formed into the likeness of living vines. Orian had thought that the boat was painted white, but as it drew closer he could see that the wood from which the boat was made was white itself, and smooth. As the boat came to rest, Orian discovered that there was no one inside it.
A number of the figures glided quickly toward the boat and stopped, turning expectantly toward Orian.
This action was so directly aimed at him that it woke Orian out of revery. A wave of courage rose within him, and for the first time, he opened his mouth and spoke to the figure beside him. “Where are you taking me?” His voice sounded loud in the enduring, dreamlike silence.
The figure with the gray swirls on his face slowly turned his head and looked at Orian. It raised its arm toward the boat, slender, dark blue fingers revealed at the end of its robe.
Orian looked toward the boat, where the figures were still waiting. He whirled around at the rest of the mass of shadows, finding that all eyes were still on him, motionless, inscrutable.
Orian grew impatient. “I will not go anywhere until I know what will happen to me, and where we are going. Why will you not tell me?”
The figure lowered its arm, and took a step toward Orian. Orian did not back away, but stood his ground.
Then a voice that could have been his own, but also could not have been, echoed inside of Orian’s head. It spoke with an elegance that Orian knew he did not possess. The words flowed smoothly, like thoughts, but they did not bubble up from the depths of his mind, as most thoughts do. They came from somewhere outside of himself. From somewhere above, beyond, and elsewhere.
The voice said, Is this not what you have wanted? Is this not why you have come?
Something within Orian, within the deepest part of him, grew still. And it listened. The words had been simple, plain, and gentle. But they had spoken to him in a way that knew him. The words had not really been questions. They had been answers.
Orian’s gazed softened. He stepped across the sand towards the boat, and climbed in. The smooth, white wood was cool beneath his hands. Orian’s escort followed him and boarded the boat. It stood at the bow of the boat, tall and dark. Others boarded behind Orian.
Orian looked at the number of figures on the beach, and he knew that the boat could not hold them all. But it did not seem to matter, for the boat had begun to pull away from the sand, and was edging slowly away from the dark mass standing on the beach.
Orian felt the last grinding of sand on the bottom of the boat, and then it was free. There was no force that Orian could see that was propelling the vessel, no sail or oar, but it steadily drew further away from shore. As it did so, the lantern hanging from the prow of the boat had flared into a brilliant white light, then settled into a quiet blue glow, soft and luminous. It reflected off the surface of the water around them, mingling with the light from the stars and the moon.
Orian watched as the remaining figures on the beach grew smaller. They stood watching, their red eyes growing more and more distant. Behind them he could see the pure white town of Acta, his home. His eyes followed the pale stretch of Moontide up several terraces and down a certain street to a rooftop he knew to be his own.
He knew that he was leaving behind everything he had ever known. But the voice, whether it had been his own or not, had been right. This is why he had come. This is what he had wanted.
The boat turned so the prow faced out to sea, and it sailed into the night on the waves of the Deepening, out onto the Sea of Silentium. The white city between the cliffs dwindled and faded from sight. With nothing before and nothing behind, the boat sailed into the dark.
Orian sat aboard, looking out at the unending flatness of the sea around him. The lantern had dimmed to only a candle’s illumination, and the moon had waned and set on the horizon. The stars hung low in the night sky. The sea was calm.
Orian had been out to sea a few times before with his grandfather, when he was still alive. The shore had never been out of sight. They had always anchored about half a mile out, and waited for fish to be drawn to the boat. Their nets had never been full, but they had never been empty either. The sea had always given them enough.
Orian had never been out to sea after dark.
The seascape was beautiful, the starlight accenting the movements of the undulating waters, the spread of the sea extending as far as Orian could see. He wondered at the enormous mystery of it, massive, awesome, unknowable.
Orian did not know whether or not he should be afraid. His instinct told him that he should. He was on a boat sailing farther than anyone in the town had ever sailed. He was accompanied by a dozen mysterious, shadowy beings, the nature and origin of which he did not know. Of course he should be afraid.
Yet another part of him told him there was no reason to fear. With every passing minute, he believed these beings to be benevolent. But that did not change the fact that he knew nothing of them, their intent, or their destination. Orian’s escort stood at the prow of the boat, staring, so it seemed, out at the sea beyond. It had not moved since they had departed. Orian was contemplating speaking to it again, when a brilliant golden light shot past the boat beneath the surface of the water.
The light had moved so quickly Orian had not been able to see its source. He looked around at the creatures huddled behind him, finding them undisturbed. He gripped the railing and leaned out, looking over the waters for any trace of the light, but there was no further sign.
He was still leaning over the side of the boat when the light shot past on the other side, followed by a small splash. Orian spun around and leaned over the other side. He was fast enough only to catch a glimpse of it fading into the depths beneath the surface of The Deepening.
The light shot past again, directly underneath the boat this time. It sped away beneath the surface of the water, a brilliant golden streak perfectly in line with the trajectory of the boat. Orian’s heart pounded in his ears, excitement welling up inside him.
The golden light became a glow that grew steadily until it shone brightly directly under the vessel. It seemed like the boat was sitting on a star, the light shining up from the deep, casting reflections of the wavering patterns of water on Orian’s face and the statuesque countenances of the beings accompanying him. Orian stared down into it with awe, holding his breath.
An explosion of the golden streaks erupted, zipping by Orian and the boat, flaring their golden light as they went. They were so fast and there were so many that he was overwhelmed with the sight of them. They were flashing past the boat and out in front of it, then circling back around for another pass. There were at least a hundred of the glorious beams shooting to and fro under the surface of the water, all flowing together in a symphony of light and movement that made Orian tremble in wonder.
The motion of the lights grew into a frenzy until one of the lights suddenly broke the surface of the water and launched itself into the air. At that moment everything seemed to slow.
There, flying through the air parallel to the boat, so close Orian felt he could reach out and touch it, was a creature like nothing Orian had ever dreamed. Its body was that of a fish, with glowing golden scales that covered the length of it, from its round, blunted head to its tail, which tapered off into a sleek muscular fin. On the creatures back was a similar fin, and to each side of it there were two pairs of great wings, golden feathered, spreading away from the body in a wonderful symmetry. The entire creature glowed with its own golden fluorescence.
The creature dove back into the water in a blur of motion. But a second later, many of the creature’s companions followed, launching into the air in great arcs and down into the water again. They sped past the boat and dove in front of it, criss-crossing each other’s paths and diving over and under one another, lighting the trailing water droplets with their golden glimmer.
Orian broke into a huge smile as one of them came rushing up from behind the boat and flew into the air, diving diagonally across the boat above Orian’s head, spinning in the air. It landed on the other side with a large splash and sped away. Orian watched, enraptured. The entire surrounding sea seemed to be lit on fire with the brilliance of the creatures. When they finally settled and set to swimming alongside the boat, Orian noticed a dark spot coming up over the horizon in the distance.
The dark shape grew clearer and coalesced into a spot of land. Orian’s golden guides formed into a battalion of light in front of the boat and led them closer to the land, bright streaks against the darkness of the water.
Orian’s mind raced with the implications of what he was seeing. There was land in sight. Unknown land.
As they glided across the water, the darkness began to fall away. The sky lightened slightly, and gave way to a grey dullness that spread over the dome of the world. The stars went back into hiding one by one. The golden angelfish descended back into the depths of Silentium, away from the light of day. A pervasive grey mist roiled and rolled over the waters, making the air foggy and cold, and blocked the spot of land from view.
Orian sat back down in the boat, and felt a wave of exhaustion fall over him. He had been up all night and tense from anxiety and excitement. His eyelids began to droop, and before he knew it he was on his side, curled up in the dry bottom of the boat, huddled against the chill. Soon he was fast asleep.