A smooth path winds its way through the rock spires, into darkness. It is paved with black tiles like the ones at the bottom of Hargis’s pool.
Where does it lead?
Till does not want to move further away from the door behind them. It is the last remaining link, however feeble, to a world where time passes for mortal beings, the world of sunrises and sunsets, of rain and wind and living, breathing things. What lies ahead, in this stone forest under the lake, this landscape out of some troubled dream?
He looks over his shoulder, and already he can no longer see the door through which they stepped into this place. Involuntarily, his fingers close around Hargis’s hand with a desperate grip. Without her, he will be lost. But he does not want to follow her, either. Something waits for him in this darkness, and there is no one here to protect him from it, as his sister would do when he woke from his nightmares at home. She comforted him, and made everything all right again.
Hargis makes nothing all right.
Worse, she is part of this, she is the one who wants to take him into the darkness and deliver him to this thing that waits for him, she who wishes to bring about some unknown change in him. He strains against her pull even though it though it is no use resisting her.
The torch dims suddenly; its flame starts to gutter out.
Fear seizes Till.
As though unwilling to abide the struggle of this last, feeble flicker of light, Hargis lowers the torch into a pool of water between two pillars. Utter darkness closes in on them from all sides.
“No!” Till cries. “There’s no light! How can you see the way?”
“I am the Light,” Hargis says. “And the Way.”
For an instant, he thinks he sees the copper glint of her eyes in the blackness
She continues to walk, and Till stumbles along, wondering what that is supposed to mean. Is it some horrible jest? But she never jests. Again and again, he glances up at where Hargis’s face must be. He doesn’t catch sight of the reddish flicker again. It probably wasn’t truly there; he just wanted it to be.
No, he tells himself, I really didn’t.
Once more, time stretches into endlessness. Step after step he goes with Hargis, who walks as swiftly as before, with undiminished surefootedness. How can she do this, when there is no light to see by, no real light, anyway?
Or is there?
He squints into the ink-black night of the cave. A faint glow lies ahead in the distance, pale blue, almost white. He closes his eyes and opens them again. It is still there: light like moonshine behind clouds.
Is it possible?
Oh please, let it be!
Let that be the exit of this cave! Perhaps the lake is not as deep as he thought, and by some slow, long road they’ve come back up to the world he remembers.
Indeed now the path is sloping upwards; gently at first, then ever more steeply. Till can feel the strain in his legs. The cold light is closer now, and no longer so faint. It is not red, as torchlight would be, nor golden like the sun. Nor have they been walking for so long that evening should have fallen in the world outside. It can’t be moonlight, either. Before him, a short distance away now, lies what looks like a gateway, where two massive pillars of rock growing out of the ground have joined with two others reaching down from the unseen ceiling.
He wants to run toward this natural portal, toward the light behind that ridge. But Hargis maintains her measured pace.
Then his heart sinks.
She is not leading him toward the mouth of a cave, out into the open air. They are walking up a hill, a hill far beneath the lake, and what lies behind it cannot be the moon, unless it has fallen from its perch in the sky and plummeted into this deep place made of stone and shadow.
And yet Till feels no fear, and no despair, not even disappointment.
As they near the luminous crest, the Till that was afraid of this place becomes a memory, an echo of someone that once was but no longer is him, and he realizes that this light is the same he has seen inside the Shard Hargis gave him, only a thousand times brighter and more powerful. A strange calm settles on him, and a great yearning to reach its source, to be close to it, to be in it, be one with it.
At last they reach the top of the ridge. On the threshold of the gateway formed by the two pillars of rock, Hargis stops. Till gasps in amazement.
The hill has no summit, but is hollow inside, like a great bowl carved out of the rock. Stone spires of all shapes and sizes descend its slopes. Only at the bottom is the ground smooth and even, and there the path of black tiles ends, and widens into a circle. And in the middle of this, something glints and glitters, cold and bright, like a thing alive and yet not alive.
Hargis leads him in silence down to the bottom of the crater. There, she releases his hand, leaving him to stumble toward the source of the unearthly radiance.
Before him stands a thing made of light. It’s shape is uncertain, ever changing, and yet it appears almost like glass, of a kind so pure and clear as spring water made solid. It is tall as two or three men, and half as wide. Inside its shifting boundaries, Till sees depths of night vaster than those of the clearest evening skies in summer; and in that boundless darkness, an infinity of stars seethes and eddies in an endless ebb and flow.
He sinks to his knees before this incomprehensible sight. A part of him closes its eyes and yields to forgetting. Another wakes blinking from a long sleep.
He turns to meet Hargis’s watchful gaze. “Who am I?”
And almost it seems to him that she smiles.
NEXT: A Queen’s Youth