74. The Storm Hall

Till finds himself in one of the strangest places he has ever seen.

He expected to step into a building divided into separate floors and many chambers, connected by stairs and corridors and hallways—but instead the walls of the Storm Hall contain within themselves just one single vast room.

And what a room!

Everywhere, coal fires burn in a multitude of braziers forming two rings, one within the other. The flickering flames cover the polished stone floor in a twitching patchwork of light and shadow. But even the combined light of so many braziers is not enough to fully illuminate this enormous place.

Beyond the outer ring of fires, massive columns of dark stone reach up into darkness, each as thick as the trunks of the mightiest trees Till has seen in the forests of Hestia. They completely encircle the hall, except for a gap at the far end where there is another tall door like the one through which he entered, and which he thinks must open onto the White Stairs he spotted from the boat.

Avina stops for a moment before they pass beyond the boundary marked by the row of columns. She bows her head and mutters something in a low voice. Till peers left and right into the corridor that curves away into the shadows between the columns and the outer wall. As far as he can see, there are no other doors of any kind.

“Come.”

Avina takes his hand again and leads him toward the center of the huge room. Till looks up toward the inside of the dome. The light from the braziers does not reach there. It seems covered with light and dark patches, as if there’s lichen or moss growing on the stone. At its base are the slit-like windows he saw from afar. There are no screens in them to keep out the cold and the wind. Just looking at them makes Till shiver. But they are nothing compared to the hole at the top of the dome.

At first he thinks the roof is damaged, but the opening is perfectly round and even in shape, as though someone went and cut off the very highest part of the dome with a giant knife, leaving it open to the night sky.

Why would anyone want a roof with such a big hole in it?

Soon Till finds himself face to face with another incomprehensible thing. Inside the second, smaller circle of braziers is a pool!

It is round, and big enough to hold the ferry that carried him across the lake. A low wall, just high enough for someone to sit on, encloses it. What could the purpose of all this strangeness be?

“What’s that pool for?”

“It is an ornament,” Avina tells him. “Her Holiness often sits by it in quiet meditation, especially when it rains. Ah! There’s some drops now.”

Till doesn’t know what meditation is, but as the rain begins to fall through the great opening in the dome and into the still water below, the magic of the bewildering arrangement becomes apparent.

The raindrops glitter like molten gold as they pass through the firelight, and produce endless patterns of rings and ripples as they stir the pool’s inky surface. The sound they make as they strike the water echoes through the great hall like some wistful music, at once near and distant.

“Close your eyes for a moment,” Avina says. “And listen.”

Reluctantly, Till obeys.

It is like standing in the open, with rain falling all around, but not on him. A soft moan ebbs and swells in the air as the wind blows through the window slits underneath the dome. The sound is beautiful but also haunting. He shudders, and opens his eyes.

Each time the wind sighs, the many fires shiver like a crowd flinching in awe before some unseen power. From far below comes the sound of waves lapping at the rocky shores of the island. It is as though the entire place is a vast instrument for the elements to play.

“Welcome,” Avina says. “Welcome to the Storm Hall!”

NEXT: A Silver Chain in the Depths

 

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