Aderes snapped to the present. His father’s words bore into him. Was that why no one walked these streets? Had something vital been forgotten?
The boy huffed. What difference would it make if it was never there? It still seemed like a bunch of silly costumes and make-believe. When he was younger, his eyes sparkled at the stories told around the fire. “Such childishness” he remarked with mild disgust.
If he couldn’t hold it in his hands, how could it possibly be real? And what value could anything unreal possess?
Some glimmer, a flash of light caught his attention. It vanished so quick he was unsure he’d seen anything at all. He looked about; nothing could have caused it. Nothing fell, no trees stood to sway and alter the patterns of light.
It happened again. Three orbs appeared and disappeared in a blink at the end of a street he’d never walked. He rushed to meet them, waving his hands through the air where they’d appeared, but he felt nothing.
Nothing save for a vague unease. The city writhed in its slumber. Aderes swallowed, his wonder rising to meet his fear. They mixed in his stomach and churned his insides.
He forced himself forward. If the gods wished to show themselves, he offered himself. Each step filled an eternity. Only the eyes of spirits could detect the subtle twitches of his muscles that moved him. He was as a statue animating itself through will alone.
Dark clouds covered the sky, and a sharp gust bowled him over. Aderes beheld the heavens, terrified; if he had insulted the gods, surely this heralded his death. If he had pleased them, they’d rewarded him with a test. The gods – though just – held no regard for mortal frailties, and their esteemed suffered most.
Though he regarded scripture as mere stories, that fear was woven into his bones. There was no worse fate than to be chosen.
The road before him warped and descended into the earth. It formed a staircase leading deep into chambers hidden from the surface. He stared in disbelief; were these connected to the buildings surrounding him? Were these the secrets hidden for so long? Lightning snaked to the ground behind Aderes, breaking the stalemate between his curiosity and dread, shoving him forward.
Upon touching the first step, the staircase extended several miles, and the networks of tunnels and rooms he’d seen became distant. An all-consuming blackness enwrapped him, all-consuming save for a single point of light at the very bottom. He slid his hand along the wall while carefully navigating each step, but once he was certain of their spacing and he’d found his rhythm, he ran. Whatever the light held for him, he couldn’t go back.
The light never came closer, yet it expanded and encroached on the darkness. He willed it to come to him. Whatever lay beyond the threshold, whatever he’d see, no one else had seen it; no one else had been given this chance, no one else had returned with knowledge.
He slowed. No one else, had they been so privileged, came back alive. He swallowed and was made painfully aware how dry his mouth had become. He would drink the oceans if they offered themselves to him. His body felt the weight of a thousand years suddenly impressed upon it, and he surrendered willingly to the white radiance that surrounded him.
When the light faded, he felt himself again. He blinked in confusion – he was back in the city square, but it was lined with statues depicting things from hells and heavens unknown to him.
One possessed a multitude of arms; another was nailed to a tree. A smiling fat man sat with his legs folded, and a wizened warrior with rippling muscles, a horned helmet and one eye towered behind him. Aderes saw what looked like giant triangles made of sand in the distance, bearing markings too small and intricate to comprehend from where he stood.
He saw a four-armed woman with a belt of arms and a necklace of severed heads, and a goat’s head with blood spilling from its mouth. He saw an orb with thirteen wings and thousands of eyes across its surface. The sky shone blood red; the figures turned to ash and vanished before his mind could etch them into memory.
He calmed, not by his own efforts but by some invisible hand upon him. The sky returned to its bright shade of blue, and as it did the shapes of people popped into the air around him. Stunned, Aderes reached toward them but his hand passed through. They were translucent, and as unaware of him as he was aware of them. The city whirred and sprang to life, and Aderes forgot everything else when he saw the towers light up beneath a pitch-black night sky.
The people surrounding him had become solid shapes, as real as anyone he’d ever known, and he could hear them talking in a tongue too distant to understand. His wonder fully devoured his fear; he knew other languages existed, or had existed, from the chants uttered by priest, but to hear such unfamiliar sounds used casually sparked the same obsessive curiosity of a babe learning its first words.
These people wore clothes that moved contrary to the breeze, that shifted color and shape depending on which buildings they entered and who they approached. Their eyes shone as brightly as the lamps that lit the walkways, and from the highest point Aderes could reach he saw a sea of bright colors interweaving and shifting in beautiful, harmonious patterns.
“Are you men, or are you gods?”
If anyone heard him, they ignored him. He leapt back to the street, and passed through the people like they were ghosts.
He tried to touch what looked like gemstones extending down the neck of a boy his height, but his hand passed through… Slowly. He stepped through another person and it was like moving through water. He soon found himself being jostled in the crowd, bumped and shoved and knocked off his feet.
Everyone stopped. He looked, and everyone was staring at him – staring at him with those unnerving eyes. Aderes’ blood ran cold; his heart raced, and his feet carried him quick as they could to a door sliding open as someone entered the square. He slammed against empty air, unable to enter; pitch blackness filled the room ahead of him, and the door slid shut.
This time when he tried to gather himself and take in his surroundings, no one was there. The square was empty. The sky turned red and black. The sun had swelled to an enormous size. He shrank at the sight of it and fell to the ground. He could see lights behind the panes of the buildings around him; is that where everyone had gone?
Beyond the borders of the city the world caught fire. Aderes was flattened against the ground, and a fierce wind whipped across his face. He cried out; it felt like his flesh had been rent from his bones. The sky ripped and the stars shone briefly behind all-consuming flame.
The world ended. Aderes awoke hours later, shaken but whole. The sky returned to its perfect blue, and the sun waned in peaceful twilight.
He rose with a knot in his stomach. He dry-heaved; his body desperately wanted to vomit but had nothing to purge.
He ran as fast as his wobbly legs would carry him. He vowed to never step on sacred ground again.