“What is this place?” Nareia said, gaping up at the tower.
“I don’t know.” Orian gripped her hand tightly. The tower seemed even taller now that they were standing in its shadow.
Orian and Nareia watched as the group of guardians marched past on both sides, forming a line on either side of the great steps. Orian’s escort walked between them, coming to a stop at the foot of the steps. It turned and produced a small lantern from the curls of its robes, similar to the one that hung from the prow of the boat, but smaller. It held the lantern in one hand, and waved the other before it. A small blue flame sprang to life within. The being extended the lantern toward Orian.
Orian squeezed Nareia’s hand and together they stepped forward. Orian’s stomach was turning in knots, and his heart beat like a hammer in his chest. He had left his family, trusted unknown creatures, and crossed the sea.
For this. This was why he had come.
He reached out and reverently took the lantern from the creature. He looked up into the being’s eyes, and they were inscrutable as ever. Then Orian cast his gaze over the being’s shoulder, to the stone archway waiting at the top of the steps. Whatever answers awaited him, they were within. There was nowhere else to go. They had arrived at their destination.
Orian and Nareia ascended the great steps of the tower under the surreal dusk. “Orian,” Nareia’s said, her voice tiny. “I’m scared.”
“Me too,” he answered.
They passed through the archway into the darkness inside.
Orian raised the lantern, letting the blue glow of the lantern illuminate what it could. They were in an entryway made of black blocks of stone, smoothed and polished to a shine. The blue light reflected eerily off the stones, their footsteps echoing in the cavernous space. Orian could see the dark shape of another archway on the opposite wall, and to either side rose twin staircases that spiraled upward, following the round curve of the tower.
“I don’t want to go in there,” he heard Nareia whisper at his side. She gripped his arm tightly with both of hers. Though they both were frightened, her presence gave him courage.
Orian slowly set the lantern down on the floor. He took Nareia by the shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. There was fear there, and trust. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Orian began. “I don’t know why we’re here, or what those creatures are. I don’t know what this place is. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. But you’re all I have right now.” As he spoke, Orian realized how lonely this journey had been. “I need you, Nareia.”
Nareia nodded slowly, wiping a drop for her eye. “I need you, too,” she said. “Maybe we were both brought here for each other, so that we wouldn’t be alone.” They embraced, perfect strangers, but somehow connected.
Orian stooped and picked up the lantern, and their hands found each other once more. Their grips tightened as they passed through the archway into deeper blackness.
As soon as they had crossed the threshold, blue flames sprang to life all around them. Hundreds of candles, each with a small tongue of fire, illuminated the room in which they stood.
It was some sort of sanctuary. There were rows of pillars on either side which rose up to support the vaulted ceiling. The candles burned from sconces on the walls and pillars, from myriad wrought-iron chandeliers overhead, and covered the floor except for a path straight down the center of the room. Orian and Nareia walked the path between the candleflames to the front of the room, where there was a black stone pedestal, on top of which rested an ornately carved chest.
The chest was made of white wood, the same wood from which the boat had been fashioned. It was held together by dark metal corners and fastenings, all engraved with intricate, florid markings. There was no lock or mechanism on the box.
Orian set the lantern on the pedestal beside the chest, and released Nareia’s hand. He reached forward and slowly, gently lifted the lid of the box. The interior was padded with dark blue velvet. Upon it, in the center of the box, rested a key.
Orian slipped his fingers around it, and lifted it from the box. The key was large, cool and heavy in his hand. One side of the head of the key was engraved with the likeness of the sun, and the other side with the likeness of the moon. A thick shaft protruded from these carvings, at the end of which were three teeth, the middle one longer than the others. The key dangled from a silver ring.
Orian and Nareia silently looked at one another. He closed the lid of the box, and gently handed the key to Nareia. They walked back down the candlelight path, taking the lantern with them. The moment they crossed the threshold the candles were extinguished, as if by a gust of wind.
Hand in hand, Orian holding the lantern, Nareia clutching the key, they mounted the stairs and began to climb. The twin staircases crossed paths at landings as they spiraled their way up the tower. Small arched windows offered Orian and Nareia glimpses of the world outside as they ascended, a world that was falling away below. The sun had gone, and the moon and stars had awakened, illuminating the rocky island and shimmering from the surface of The Deepening.
Their climb seemed to go on longer and higher than was possible. They came to a landing and looked up, and saw that the stairs ended with the next turning of the spiral above their heads. Together they mounted the final steps, toward the very top of the tower.
They reached the top of the stairs and stepped into a room. They peered through the darkness, using the lantern’s illumination. The room was round and plain. The ceiling was domed, with carved lines extending from the top in a radial symmetry.
On the other side of the room was a door.
The door was thick and heavy, carved from a slab of stone much taller and wider than Orian. In the dim light, Orian’s eyes strained to make out the detail engraved into the surface. In the middle of the door, as the centerpiece, was an ornate star. And on one side of the door was an intricate silver plate with a keyhole.
To the right of the door was another small pedestal. Orian walked over and set the lantern upon it. Then he turned around to face Nareia.
Behind Nareia there was a pair of glowing red eyes, hovering above her. Orian almost let out a scream. Nareia saw the look on his face and whirled around, stumbling back into Orian’s arms.
The lantern on the pedestal flared and grew brighter, its blue glow changing to a white light which illuminated the room completely. The figure with the grey swirls on his face stood there silently, its long dark robes flowing down from its shoulders, curling into wisps of smoke and vanishing at the floor, as if the being rested on a dark cloud.
Then Orian felt a familiar presence within himself, and the voice spoke to him once more. You have come far. This is the moment of your revelation. You hold the key. Use it.
Orian’s nerves calmed and he released Nareia from his arms. She looked up into his face and saw the questions that were there.
“Did it speak to you?” she asked.
Orian nodded. “You have the key.”
Nareia looked down, and lifted her hand, the silver ring with its key hanging there. She offered it to Orian.
“No,” he said. “You’re a part of this.”
With a nervous glance in the direction of their guide, Orian and Nareia walked over to the door. Nareia hefted the key in her hand, and slipped it into the keyhole. She looked at Orian, and he looked back. Then he placed his hand on hers where it rested on the key.
As one, they turned the key.
A brilliant light crawled along the edges of the door, razor thin at first, but growing until the blinding light filled the entire room, washing away the stone and the tower and the island and the world.
The door opened, and Orian and Nareia found themselves standing at the edge of infinity.
Spread out before them was the vastness of the universe. The door floated in the middle of space and time. Planets and their moons spiraling in their orbits. Stars and their systems spinning in the heavens. Brilliant comets shooting along their trajectories. Bright nebulae drifted in space, made of hues of pink and violet and a hundred other unnamed and unknown colors. Galaxies hung in spiraled shapes, unfathomable distances across. The wind of stars and distant suns blew across forever and gently touched the faces of the two children standing in the doorway. The endless stretch of eternity was laid before them.
Never in all his life had Orian imagined something like this. It was beyond the scope of his mind, far beyond the grasp of his comprehension. He looked out at the great expanse before him with eyes wide and bright, taking in the staggering vision of light and beauty. The elements of the universe danced before him, a gorgeous symphony of divinity, of movement and mystery.
And as he looked on, he heard the note once more, the note he had heard in his home, then on the beach of Starside, and again on the island. He heard the music of the universe, the beckoning call of the unknown. It had brought him here, to this place, at this moment.
He trembled in the face of infinity. He had been brought here to bear witness. He had never been so happy to feel so small. It humbled him. It was a gift.
Orian felt Nareia draw close to him, sliding her arm around his waist, staring out at the wonder before them. They stood for eons, arms around each other, taking it all in. They found each other’s hands, and the voice spoke again.
We have been here for longer than you can know. We are eternal in a way that you are not. We will exist this way for eternity, if our Maker deems it so. You, however, will exist in a different form after you die. We are neither living nor dead. Our Maker chose not to give us the Breath of Life, as he chose to give it to you. We are his servants. We were created for a specific purpose: to guard this place. To be the keepers of this secret. And we have kept it for ages past, and will for ages yet to come.
We have seen the rest of your world that you have not seen. It is dark and cold, full of evil men who cannot learn to live together. But you, your cities, are different.
The cities of Acta and Lightfall stand at two of the Four Corners of the World. These four corners are connected by your sea. This island lies in the center of that sea. The people of Acta are kind and giving, and they have learned to live together in unity, without violence and hatred. Likewise, the people of Lightfall. There are two other cities like yours, standing at the remaining two corners. We have walked your towns to ensure that you remain the good people that you are, to ensure that you continue to cherish one another. This has been our purpose.
Our Maker has given us permission, that if one of the people of the cities at the Four Corners of the World shows an interest in who we are and our purpose here, to reveal to them the nature of our existence, and the nature of the place in which you stand. You, the being known as Orian, have been the first to show such interest. Your heart has been seen, and it has been named. Nareia, your heart has also been seen. Although you did not come here of your own will, you have also been chosen.
We choose now to reveal our secrets to you. We are the guardians of the truths of the universe. Through this place we have access to any location in all of Creation. The Creation is vast, and there are many places that have yet to be seen by any eyes other than those of our Maker. Even our own.
What you see now before you is a mere fraction of the fullness of infinity, a grain of sand upon a beach. The Maker takes pride in his creation, and receives glory from it being seen. However, the majority of your people are not worthy to cast their gaze upon it, for they would seek it for their own, spreading their evil into the uttermost parts of eternity.
So we were created as guardians to watch over this place, to watch over your people. We hoped that you would remain pure and good. And you have. So we now give you the things which you see, the wonder that you are now taking into your own hearts. They are yours to carry with you for the rest of your existence.
The secrets that have been ours, are now yours. Let them live inside of you. Let them transform you. Take them.
Orian and Nareia look at each other.
And they smiled.
Then the light enveloped Orian.
And he fell into it.
Somewhere along the way, he lost hold of Nareia’s hand, or she lost hold of his.
When Orian opened his eyes, he was staring straight up into the depth of the bright blue sky. He was laying on his back on a soft, warm surface. He closed his eyes again. He did not want to move. He wanted to stay in that moment forever.
When he finally stirred, he found that he was lying on the beach of Starside. He got to his feet and brushed the sand away. He raised his eyes to the sea, out to the horizon. He could see no sign of the island. He looked around and Nareia was nowhere to be found.
And his heart began to ache.
Orian stood there, letting the sound of the waves fill his ears and the touch of the ocean wind blow his hair, and he remembered. He wondered how he would ever be able to tell anyone about what he had seen, where he had been. He wondered if he would ever see Nareia again. They had shared something, had been given a moment that would connect them forever.
But in her absence, he felt like he had lost something.
He turned and gazed at the white city of Acta, shining brightly in the sun. This was his home. But now he knew there was so much more out there. He had been given a glimpse of something infinite, something so much bigger than himself.
He wished that he could return and stand in the doorway at the edge of eternity. He longed for the touch of Nareia’s hand, and he wanted to gaze into that place forever.
He wanted to go back.
Orian took one last look out over the waters of The Deepening, out over the Sea of Silentium, then turned and began walking up the beach of Starside, kicking up sand as he went.
He knew his parents would be so happy to find him safe, that his mother would weep for joy, and his father would take him in his strong embrace. He knew he would have to tell them where he went, but he wondered if they would ever believe him.
Then he felt a sudden thump on the side of his leg.
Orian looked down, and slipped his hand into his pocket. His fingers curled around something cool and heavy, and he withdrew it.
He gripped a silver ring.
And at the end of it hung a key.