Chapter thirty-four of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
The sun rose red through clouds over Green Lake, and three men stood in the woods watching their breath puff into clouds before them. Howard looked nervous—he knew well what secrets forests held, and he was afraid. Admiral Thomas had his arms crossed against the chill, but his face was bright and alive—he, like a child waiting for a toy store to open, was full of excitement, knowing that today he would witness something new. Hiram took equal parts of both moods and stood in awed expectation, enjoying the thrill of sharing something he had so long held secret, yet also afraid that this portal, too, would be closed forever.
* * *
The party stood speechless, Carlos and Bransen the only two aware that they were no longer in contact with Earth; that Sophie’s abduction may, amazingly, be the least of their worries. But there was something about the framework of brick steps at the Temple of Radiance that seemed to undulate in the purple twilight. Something that silenced them and left them unafraid. Something that made missing girls and closed doorways seem trite in the presence of the vision before them: a cascade of light like a waterfall in the sun releasing their minds of care. Even Henry, who had accidentally led them here in his determined search for Sophie, smiled like the rest of them.
And their smiles hinted at an understanding that touched a sense of the sacred buried deep below the surface, where they didn’t even know they had nerves to be tugged.
* * *
The military recons had found no way of descending the cliff over the forest, though they had found what appeared to be a train station without a track, where previously there had been only dry, cracked earth. A sign above the ramshackle, one-platform station said “Oizus,” and General Rauchbach stood staring at it as if the word itself could make its meaning apparent. Contact had been lost completely—the whole team had known the very moment it happened—and the general had turned his fear to anger, like a good soldier should. The scientists were huddled near Dr. Moore, waiting for answers, but Angelo Moore could only shiver like a babe without a blanket, and, like the rest of them, wait to see if anyone was going to rescue them.
* * *
At first, Sophie didn’t know they’d landed. Dajenour’s grip just suddenly loosened, and for one moment of panic, Sophie thought he was going to drop her; thought the worry writ on Henry’s face had been justified; thought this had been the creature’s intent all along. Then she realized that the wind had stopped and they were no longer moving, and she opened her eyes.
Then she tried to open her eyes again—but it was still dark, the lack of light like a weight on her pupils.
“I can’t see,” she said, trying to maintain her composure. “Why can’t I see?”
But no—there was the absolute faintest mist of whiteness, roughly the shape of her hands, which she thought she was holding up in front of her face.
“Let her out—quickly,” Dajenour trilled in an excited tremor.
There was movement—more Golgantry, Sophie assumed. She could hear a low mumbled hush like dead leaves in a breeze as the others spoke softly among themselves. Her back tensed and she preparing to be grabbed. Instead, there was a sudden burst of light in front of her, forcing her to stumble back and cover her eyes.
“Don’t try to leave the Expanse,” Dajenour cautioned. “You’ve know what it’s like out there.”
As the brightness dimmed to a human form and her eyes adjusted, Sophie saw that Dajenour hadn’t been talking to her, he’d been talking to Ana-loop.
“Hello, little one,” Ana-loop said kindly and smiled. “Dajenour has taken an immense risk to allow us to speak—make sure you thank him.”
“I will,” Sophie agreed, swallowing her words nervously.
Behind Ana-loop was a box about four feet long by two feet tall and deep. It was so plain it looked unfinished, but the long, stout poles inserted through hoops at each corner, which allowed it to be carried, reminded Sophie of pictures she’d seen in her illustrated Bible, of the Ark of the Covenant.
“Is that an ark?” she asked slowly with disbelief.
“That is my prison, yes,” Ana-loop replied, her tone expressing her disinterest in questions for the moment. Sophie respectfully stayed quiet, even though she couldn’t make sense of the answer.
“You are trapped, Sophie,” Ana-loop said simply; sympathetically. She was trying to be calm but her face was distorted by worry. “I asked Dajenour to bring you to me so I could tell you how to get back. You must find the lightfall, and beyond that, a city called Lithari.”
“Lithari,” Sophie repeated under her breath, nodding once, her face set in concentration.
“You will find your Radiance there—I hope—and then they’ll have to open the doors and put the portals back in place. Once they’re sure.”
“Sure of what?”
“Sure that anything that could harm Perendjo can no longer do so.”
“I don’t understand…” Sophie trailed off apologetically. “They trapped us?”
Ana-loop sighed with frustration. She knew she didn’t have as much time as she needed to explain everything to Sophie. That left only the highlights, which had little meaning without the substance beneath them.
“I was wrong. You shouldn’t have come here. You shouldn’t have used the machine. Please—go to Lithari and learn about your Radiance. It’s the only way. We have to protect Perendjo. It was agreed upon. It’s the only thing that binds us.”
She stopped talking suddenly and looked over Sophie’s shoulder, where Dajenour was moving closer.
“We have to go,” he said evenly, his voice like a low vibration in an old motor. “R’dau will find her if we stay any longer, even in the Expanse.”
“I just wanted to say I was sorry for getting you into this,” Ana-loop said.
She sighed heavily and offered a weak smile, then turned and climbed back into the box. Other Golgantry stepped forward and slid the lid back into place as her form folded into light then into the ark.
“We’ll come back and get you!” Sophie cried out suddenly. “We’ll set it right! They’ll have to let you go!”
“They cannot let her go,” Dajenour trilled dismally as they took flight. “That’s why I brought you to her.”
Sophie buried her face in the Golgantry’s chest and tried to be brave.
“Lithari,” she whispered to herself.
⇐ 33. The Epiphany Directive | 35. Light Conversation ⇒