When Orian awoke, the boat was totally engulfed in fog. It seeped over the edges of the boat in wispy swirls and made it difficult to see anything beyond. The water was deep and grey and turbulent, as if they were approaching shallows. The sky had lightened, giving a faint illumination.
He wiped the sleep from his eyes and brushed his damp, black hair back from his forehead. He started slightly as he laid eyes on the group of figures clustered in the back of the boat. They hadn’t moved, but their countenances had changed. They looked different, perhaps because it was no longer dark. But that was only part. Their dark grey complexions had paled somehow. And their eyes had...gone out. There was no red glow, no trace of light behind their gaze. They sat motionless, monoliths with dead eyes, as if they were carved from stone.
Orian looked toward the front of the boat where his escort was still standing. Its eyes were extinguished as well. He suddenly felt very much alone.
He was about to call out into the mist when the boat jerked slightly, the bottom grating against something below the surface of the water. It continued to scrape along until it came to a halt. Orian edged toward the bow and looked over, saw that the boat had come to rest on a bed of dark sand and rock.
Orian looked around at his guides, uncertain what to do. Then something fell on his ears, carried by the wind. The note he had heard before whispered softly through the fog, but Orian could not pinpoint its source. Then his gaze fell on the statuesque faces of the beings in the boat. Their eyes had once again taken on their familiar red glow, and the dark grey hue of their faces returned. One by one they stood, exited the boat, and strode to shore.
Orian turned and met the gaze of his escort, grey swirls still on its cheeks, towering over him. The figure raised its arm and extended its long fingers again, directing Orian to join the others on shore. Orian clambered over the side of the boat and stepped onto the soft sediment of the land. His escort followed, then led them up the beach.
The boat had come to rest between two rocky outcroppings, where there was a small shore. Orian could not see more than a few feet beyond where he stood. The fog continued to surround them as they embarked.
The sand gave way to clusters of sharp black rock that dotted the landscape around them, jutting up from the ground in slanted spikes. The world seemed so strange to Orian. He had never been beyond the familiar confines of Acta. To be walking in a new place, a place that no one knew, a place that perhaps no one had ever walked before; it was a staggering idea. The night had passed like a dream, and Orian briefly wondered if he was still asleep.
The broken groups of rock began to grow closer and closer together until there was no more sand. They had begun to walk up an incline, picking their way through the maze of the black bones of the land. Through the fog there came a large archway, formed out of the same sharp stone. The arch marked the beginning of a path that wound into the layers of mist. It looked as though it had been carved by giants. It was smooth, aside from the cracks near the edges, and it was set into the side of what seemed like the foot of a mountain. The land rose sharply to his left, but the mist was too thick for him to see how far the cliff ascended.
Orian looked over at his guide, but it just continued its eerie walk, steady, ever onward. Orian followed, not knowing what lie ahead.
The world dawned, but the sun kept itself hidden behind the veil of grey that wreathed the land, little more than a pale orb passing behind the clouds. As they journeyed up the path, it grew warm enough for the fog to roll off the rocky slopes, and pull back the misty curtain from the landscape.
They stood on a path that wound along the length of a great arc of land jutting up from between the waters. The island was only a few leagues long and rose up from the sea with a shallow incline from one end to the other. The high side of the island ended in a cliff, a sheer bastion of flat black rock that fell a few hundred feet straight down, where the waves crashed against the stone.
As they walked, Orian kept his gaze fixed on the far end of the island. It could have been his imagination or a mirage caused by the remnants of fog, but Orian thought he saw a dark spindle of stone standing tall atop the cliff. It wavered in the mist, a dark blur against the grey sky. But then the fog closed in once more, and it was gone from his sight.
Orian did not ask his guardian what it was, knowing he would likely not receive an answer. He merely trudged on, hoping that the answers would come, knowing that every step brought him closer. His thoughts were cast back to Acta, back to the little white stone house, back to his parents, who by now had discovered what he had done. With a distant weariness and a sense of shame he imagined his mother crying, his father holding her, telling her that their son would return soon. He imagined the word being spread through the city, of the missing young boy who had disappeared during the night with the creatures that stalked the streets. How brave, how foolish, how childish...
Orian was shaken from his thoughts by a glimpse of movement in the corner of his eye, somewhere in the rocks above. Before he could turn his head, it ducked out of sight behind a gnarled spike jutting up from the black spine of the island. His silent companions had seen it too, for they had ceased their relentless march up the path and now stood, red eyes turned toward the spot where the movement had been.
Several moments passed, but all was stillness, and there was no further sign of the thing lurking in the hills above. Orian rubbed his arms against the dewy chill. He didn’t know how long they’d been walking, but the sun was past its zenith, on its descent back toward the horizon. Perhaps time passed differently here.
After a long while, the group of figures stirred from their vigilance and began their march once more. Orian couldn’t help but think of how thirsty and hungry he was. He had had nothing to eat or drink since the previous day, and his throat was dry and rough. Knowingly, the being with the grey swirls on its face turned, parted its robes and extended its hand, which held a stone cup of water.
Orian hesitated, then took the cup. The rim of the cup was ornately carved in twists of vine. He put the cup to his lips. If the creatures meant to hurt him, they would have done it by now. Besides, the voice he had heard still rang in his mind, reassuring him of his own desire to know. He drank. The water was cool and refreshing, bringing life and energy, banishing his weariness.
Suddenly a cascade of rocks slid down the slope to his left, scattering across the path in front of the group. Orian and his escorts stopped and peered up the small hill in shock. A moment later the rocks were followed by a small white figure tumbling down the side of the hill, bumping and skidding along. It let out small yelps of pain as it fell down the rocky terrain. It flopped onto the path with a tiny thud and lay still.
Orian slowly approached the figure. It stirred and scrambled to its feet again, backing away.
It was a girl.
She was dressed in a white tunic and dark brown trousers. Her dark hair was pulled back and tied up in a white handkerchief, but a few stray strands hung down at the sides of her face. Her eyes were a sparkling bluish-green. She looked like she had been crying.
Orian didn’t think she was much younger than he was. She trembled as her eyes darted between Orian and the figures surrounding him. Her arms were scraped and bruised from her fall, and her mouth hung open in fear.
Orian stared back at her, shocked at finding someone else on this island. He looked to his guide for answers, but found its gaze was already upon him, as if it was accusing him. Orian shook his head. He didn’t know anything of this girl, had never seen her before. She wasn’t from Acta. The figure turned its head once again to consider the young girl still frozen in fear before them, then settled into stillness.
Orian took a furtive step toward the girl, wondering if his guide would disapprove. But the being just watched him, unmoving. Orian took a few more steps toward the girl, slowly, trying not to frighten her. He raised his hand, palm up, reaching out to her gently. The girl stumbled back, ready to run.
“Please,” Orian said, holding out his hand.
“Who are you?” the girl whispered. Her voice was soft and sweet, but frightened.
Orian lowered his hand. “My name is Orian.”
“Are you one of them?” she said, flashing her eyes to the beings standing behind Orian. Her voice had a strange lilt to it, an accent that Orian didn’t recognize.
He turned his head to look back. He thought it pretty clear that he wasn’t one of them. “No, I’m just a boy.”
“Don’t lie!” she cried. “I saw you! I saw you with them! You arrived with them!”
Orian didn’t know what to say. He knew how it must seem to her. He wondered where she was from, how she had gotten here. She didn’t seem like she had come of her own will, like he had. Perhaps that’s why she was so frightened. “I’m from a place called Acta, across the sea, that way.” He pointed out over the ocean, back the way they had come. Her gaze followed his fingers.
“There’s nothing across the sea,” she said, sounding uncertain.
“That’s what everyone in Acta says,” Orian answered. “But there is. Because you’re here. Where are you from?”
The girl hesitated. Then raised a slender arm and pointed out to the sea beyond the island, in the opposite direction from where Orian had come. She muttered a single word. “Lightfall.”
So it was true. There were people across the sea, another city, another place. “How did you get here?” Orian asked.
The girl took a step forward, speaking earnestly. “I was on a boat with my father. We were out to sea and were caught in a squall.” Orian could see her eyes begin to water, small tears trickling down her cheeks. “The boat was broken, capsized. I got separated from my father. I held onto a piece of the boat, and I washed up here.” She buried her face in her hands, sobs wracking her small body.
Orian approached her, his hand outstretched, unsure of what to do. “It’s alright...”
The girl rushed to Orian, wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his chest, letting the tears come. Orian hugged her, glad to have found someone like himself in this unfamiliar place, but broken-hearted for her. He let her cry for a few long moments. When she finally calmed, they separated and he looked into her eyes.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
A weak smile flickered on her face. “I’m Nareia.”
At that moment, Orian’s escort approached and peered at him. The sun had almost sunk below the horizon, and the world was growing dim. It was time to go.
“We can stay together, okay?” said Orian.
Nareia nodded, reaching out and grasping his hand with her small fingers. They turned and started down the path once more, the towering, shadowy figure taking the lead, then Orian and Nareia, followed by the cluster of beings behind.
They walked the long arc of the island as it rose to the sheer rocky promontory. The fog thinned, and Orian could see the shape of the structure standing on the peak of the cliff. The spire loomed in the fading light of dusk before them, coming slowly into view through the mist. Its base was wide, growing out of the clusters of rock at the peak. It soared hundreds of feet into the air, high above their heads. It looked like it had been carved out of the very face of the cliff. Arched windows spiraled up the outside of it, revealing nothing but darkness within.
Orian and Nareia walked up the path, hand in hand, as it approached the foot of the tower. A great set of steps led up from the path to the archway of the gate, chiseled from the rock of the island itself. The tower seemed alive, possessing a presence all its own, like a giant standing on top of the world. Nareia clutched Orian’s hand tighter as they came to a halt in the shadow of the dark cathedral.