“… and may they deem us fit for the Palace of Eternity.”
The congregation spoke out the words as one and fell silent, every head looking down at the floor. Other than the occasional sniff or cough, the only thing breaking the silence was the rhythmic drip-drip of some new leak that had appeared in the last ten minutes. He would find out where it was once everyone was gone. Now, though, he too kept his head bowed, his eyes glued on the rotting and chipped floorboards that made do as a floor. A foot in front of him, a particularly large stain tinted the soft wood in a blood-like red. He knew it wasn’t blood, though; in this part of the village the soil layer was much thinner, so the rust in the metal surface beneath it tended to creep up into the floor.
These weren’t the thoughts distracting him, though. The floor was always chipped or rotting or both and the rust stains were almost invisible to his accustomed eyes. Not even the drip-drip, which had so annoyed him when it had started, was at the forefront of his mind. No. What was keeping his mind running as he tried to feel the presence of the Dual Gods was a presence at the back of the room. Gera’s presence, specifically.
Despite being the youngest, the thirteen-year old was the sharpest of all the initiates. She understood the teachings of the Book of Precepts after one read-through – not just those in the first two chapters, which even the slowest of acolytes integrated quite quickly, but chapters four and seven too. Unfortunately, understanding wasn’t the same as accepting, and she also came up with the most difficult and most uncomfortable questions.
“If they love us that much and have so much power, why don’t the Dual Gods stop it raining once in a while? Or make it warmer?”
Here, the other initiates would perk up, looking up to him, expectant for an answer, as if the girl had turned on some light in them they hadn’t known they had. “It is a test, Gera.” He would say her name, but more often than not would look at the group as a whole. “A test of our endurance and our humility. Of our loyalty and trust in them.”
“But why only us?”
“The people in the other places?”
“What other places?”
“Beyond the gates.” At this, the other students would begin to whisper and murmur in excitement. “When I was growing up, my mother would tell me stories of the places she’d been to beyond the gates. She said none of them had this horrid weather. Mostly warm, agreeable temperatures, with the occasional downpour to keep the plants alive. She said you could walk around in shorts and no sleeves all day.”
“Please, please, everyone be quiet. Gera, what your mother told you was nothing more than tales, fanciful stories, none of it real. Beyond the gates there is darkness, and beyond that you will find only peril. Hosts of imps, demons and much worse inhabit those hinterlands, eager for some fresh human flesh to tear into. That’s why the Dual Gods built the tall metal walls that reach into the sky. To protect us from them.”
She would frown, think about what he’d said, then look back up. “But why make the gates in the first place, if they don’t want the demons to come in nor us to go out?”
If he was lucky, she only asked one or two questions during a lesson. He was rarely lucky.
And now, as the congregation remained silent, he could feel her staring at him from the back of the room, her gaze boring through his bowed balding pate.
After a couple of minutes, someone among the pews became satisfied with the amount of communing they had carried out with the Gods and began to shuffle out towards the central aisle. This seemed to serve as a prompt to the rest of the congregants, who soon followed. Exhausted, Brother Persenius also gave up on reaching the Gods and walked to the small altar to his left, next to the wall, where he replaced the dual sceptres. Before he could make his way back to the ceremonial table, where his Book of Reparations lay open, Gera had pushed her way upstream from the tumult and was standing between him and the table.
“Brother Persenius!” she said, half exclaiming it and half in a hush. “I’ve found something!”
Although he heard her words, it took him several seconds to respond, the shock still coursing through his body. He felt rattled, as if he’d just seen a ghost. In fact, that was what he’d thought he was seeing at first when he’d looked at her. She’d always resembled her mother – the thin nose; the wild, blond hair; the dimples in her cheeks, so reminiscent of the ones Talia’s own cheeks had hinted at – but this time the picture had been much closer than usual. To start with, Gera’s deep dimples had faded quite a lot as the vestiges of baby fat in her face made way to the sharper, more elegant cheeks and jaw Talia had had. Her blond curls, usually restrained by her initiate cap, now sprung out wildly, the cap nowhere in sight. What had completed the picture, strangely enough, were the mud splatters. Of course he’d seen her face splattered in mud before, but that had been when she was younger and her face was still round and distinct from her mother’s. Now, with more maturity settled into her face, he was immediately reminded of the first time he had seen Talia more than thirteen years ago.
It was on a day not unlike this one. The clouds had covered the sky, as they always did, and the walls that contained the village and its environs disappeared behind them. Bouts of heavy rain alternated with brief periods of silent skies, during which the cold settled in. Nobody knew for certain how she’d arrived exactly, but her footprints, fast erased by the rain, had suggested the Eastern gate. Persenius, at the time only recently confirmed as a Brother, had been arranging the pews when he’d heard the doors swing open. In had walked Talia, at first but a hooded figure in smooth, dark clothing which glistened strangely in the dim candlelight. She’d pulled the hood back, the few drops that had been perched on it sliding down the sides of her cape, and had looked at him with piercing green eyes, almost the exact same face which was now staring at him. It was the eyes which betrayed Gera, though. Her mother’s had been green, while hers were a deep, shimmering purple, the only clue to her father’s looks, whom Talia had always refused to discuss.
Recovered from the brief, otherworldly shock, Persenius frowned at the bundle of rags Gera produced from within her wet coat. “I don’t think we have much use for tatters, Gera.”
“No, no,” she replied, too engrossed in her discovery to notice the mocking tone, “this is just to protect it.” She began to peel out the rags, which he now realised was a single piece of fibrous cloth several metres long rolled up into a ball, and by the time she was finished the last few straggling congregants had left the building, leaving the two of them alone with the rhythmic dripping.
Discarding the cloth unceremoniously onto the floor, Gera held in her cupped hands an object Persenius didn’t recognise. It was a dull metallic grey, identical to the tall walls around the village, and no larger than an apple. It wasn’t shaped like an apple, though, instead looking like a small pyramid which had had its tip lopped off, the edges there smoothed out. When he looked at it closer, he noticed its surface was not unmarked like the village walls were, but covered in myriad lines that seemed to traverse it in every different direction, following no apparent pattern.
“What is it?” he asked. “An ornament?”
Gera, who’d been gazing at it as if she could see into it, looked up at him with a grin. “Watch.”
She slid her fingers along one of its sides, probing, until a section of it, until then identical to any other random selection of lines on it, sank in slightly. He heard a click. Then a hum. The device glowed, softly at first, but growing brighter until a film of solid light seemed to have materialised around the object.
After several seconds, the film began to expand, stretching out towards the two of them, first engulfing the girl’s hands, followed by her extended forearms. Persenius instinctively jerked back, but after seeing her remain impassive and unharmed, he drew closer once again, letting the light wrap around him too – thought not without an inevitable flinch. It continued to expand past the two of them in every direction before settling into a rough cube almost as tall as the ceiling and disappearing somewhere under the soft floorboards.
As the film of light had passed through him, Persenius had felt a welcome wave of warmth wash over him. To his great surprise, though, the air around them had remained warm, no hint of the cold that had seeped into his bones during every hour of his life as far back as he could remember. He felt a tear push out through the corner of his eye. How had he lived with the cold for this long?
The change in temperature wasn’t the only positive surprise: the dripping sound had disappeared. Could it be? Were they also insulated from the leaks and the rain? Or only from their noise?
He turned to the girl. “Where did you find this?”
“Outside the village. In the forest.”
“It’s… fantastic. Marvellous.” He reached out to the device, touched it. It felt warmer than the air, but not too warm as to burn him. The dozens of lines on its surface tickled the tip of his fingers as he ran them along it. Suddenly, a section of the side he was touching sank in, just like the one Gera had touched. This one, though, did so silently. As it did, one of the sides of the cube of light edged away from them, the sides connected to it expanding accordingly. When he stopped pressing, the edge halted, the figure keeping its new shape, and the section of the pyramid he’d pressed in slid back out and into place, melding once again into the camouflage of the lines etched into it.
“You can adjust the size of the shape with that and a couple of other hidden buttons, although I still haven’t figured out all the details. She had a few other similar devices on her, but this was the only one I could get to do something.”
He frowned. “She?”
Gera’s eyes opened wide for a fraction for a second before returning back to their previous state. She moved her fingers long other sides, her gaze fixed on it.
“Gera? She who?”
She muttered something unintelligible, her eyes avoiding his.
He raised his voice, trying to sound as commanding as possible. “Gera. Where did you find this?”
She bit the side of her lip, looking to one side. She sighed, then frowned up at him, unconvincing guilt in her expression. “Next to the Northern gate.”
Despite the warmth of the air around them, Persenius felt a flash of cold run up his spine. He snapped his arm back, away from the device, and breathed in sharply. “Turn it off.”
“Now.” This time the commanding voice came to him effortlessly. The girl obeyed and the film of light faded away, letting the familiar cold back in. “We’ve discussed this many times before, Gera. Anything that might have come through one of the gates is not to be trusted.”
“My mother came in through one of the gates,” she replied. “With me inside her.”
“We never knew that for certain. She never spoke of her past, not even at the end, when she knew she was dying.” She looked at him with flames in her eyes, unconvinced by his arguments. He sighed. “It’s for the good of the village, Gera. You know that. What were you doing close to the gates, anyway? I’ve told you dozens of times it’s dangerous out there.”
“More like hundreds,” she muttered, back to her usual teenage self.
“Even worse, then.” He paused, waiting for her to reply, but she said nothing. “So? Why did you go there?”
She looked down at the now inert device in her hands, as if the answer were hidden somewhere within its many lines. “I heard a noise. Like a bang. A loud one. And then a rumble. I got a bit closer, wondering what it was, but not really intending to get up real close. The noise had stopped, so I began to turn back, but then I heard another noise, much softer than the others. Someone grunting, like they were struggling. You always tell us to help others, so I got closer to see whether someone needed my help. When I got to the clearing around the gate I saw it wide open. Close to it, lying on the ground, was a woman. She was the one grunting, breathing heavily, and her right side was bleeding – I could see a trail of blood leading from her to the gate. I ran up to her to help, but when I reached her she didn’t notice me, not even when I stood before her, face to face. It was like she was looking right through me at something else. Something scary, from the look on her face. She looked a bit scary herself, actually, with those eyes.”
She nodded. “She had red eyes. A deep red, darker than blood. I’ve never seen eyes like that.”
Persenius had never seen purple eyes until Gera was born, he thought, but he kept this to himself. “And this thing?” he asked, pointing at the device in her hands. “She had it on her?”
“Yes. Well, it was in a large pouch she was carrying on her left side. It was made of some strange material, very smooth and shiny. Her clothes too. It reminded me of my mother for some reason, but I don’t remember her ever wearing anything like that.
He thought of the clothes Talia had worn during their first encounter. What Gera was describing sounded quite similar. Her mother had continued to wear those clothes for the first few weeks after her arrival, but soon she’d switched to the more typical fibrous clothing the rest of the villagers wore and he never saw her with the strange garments again. He pictured a baby Gera going through her mother’s few possessions and finding her unusual items of clothing, but said nothing.
“Anyway, she was looking right through me, her mouth moving as if to speak but only managing to grunt, when I noticed her left hand pawing at the pouch. I helped her open it, and she began to rummage through it without looking. Before she found what she was looking for, something else attracted her attention, something I couldn’t see which seemed to scare her even more. She stumbled to her feet and dragged herself back to the gate, dropping the pouch on her way out. I called out to her several times, but she didn’t reply and I couldn’t see her in the darkness beyond the gate. Eventually her grunts faded away and I didn’t know what else I could do.”
“That didn’t stop you from digging through her things, though,” he said, trying to keep the girl’s mind off the shock the encounter might have imprinted on her.
She shook her head, the guilt of her expression once again unconvincing. “There were several other objects like this one, but this is the only one I got to do anything.”
“Well, you can put it back in the pouch and chuck it out the gate, Gera. It sounds like that woman, or whatever she was, came from beyond the gate, and you know the kind of creatures who inhabit those lands.”
“No buts. I don’t care how useful it may seem, it’s demonic. Get rid of it.”
“You don’t know that. The woman looked human to me.”
“Regardless, we can’t take the risk.” Without another word, he walked around her and up to the ceremonial table, where the Book of Reparation lay open on the day’s page. Unnoticed, the dripping had returned. The Book was wet, the letters on the open page smudged, indistinguishable. He felt his blood simmer. “On second thoughts, Gera, let’s keep it.”