Two more days passed, and while the mountains loomed larger on the horizon, he still felt as if he were a world away. This would be his last night in Gedalta, and what did he have to show for it? Tanned arms and worn out boots. He could think of nothing else.
But you did it, he thought.
Who cared if this long walk had been the entire adventure after all? For all he knew, this was what it was like for Lissa and Father each time they traveled.
Slowly over the course of the afternoon, the ground began to change beneath his feet. The hard-packed earth gave way at first to tiny patches of grass, dry and brittle, and then to small plants sticking up into the sun, clinging to their survival in this arid place. As the hours passed, he saw something more on the horizon, too. At first glance he thought maybe the foothills to the mountains were beginning at last, but the closer he got the more perplexed he became.
Instead of the land moving upward into hills, it curved down. He began to notice it only when he realized he was descending, and he corrected his course and went back up to the top. Then, with his eyes fully alert and trained on the landscape, he saw it.
A huge depression stretched out before him, like somebody had come along and scooped out a vast section of the ground. He puzzled over it as he skirted the edge. There was no river down below, no canyon carved from water’s chisel. What, then? How had this come to be? The word floated up from his memory: a crater. He had never seen one before, but had read about them in books, a large section of land pierced by a meteor from the stars.
He had been walking for many miles now, barely looking where he was going and only staring out across the strange part of the land. Well, he told himself, at least he’d seen something.
That’s when he noticed it. The foothills he thought he had seen up ahead were not foothills at all. Now that he had come closer, he saw that they were several smaller pieces that, when seen as a group, had resembled a hill. But now with his closeness, they had broken apart into several individual pieces thrusting up into the sky.
He ran toward them, but only for a few moments. The dryness of his tongue reminded him of his nearly depleted store of water, and he slowed back down to a walk.
They were huge. They must be, as he was impressed by their size from this distance already, and he had to be miles away. He paused, staring at the ground, and realized with a sudden flash of inspiration what the crater really was. Or had been.
The grass had thickened as he walked along the cliffside, and the air had slowly grown moist, a change from the desert where he had landed. But no grass lay within the crater, and he thought he knew why. The rains didn’t touch the land he had walked across for days, but they must do so here. Or they did. How much drought had been enough to drain this entire hole in the ground until it was dry as bone? He stopped briefly, kneeling down and running his hand across the grass. It was mostly dry, but deep within some of the blades he saw hints of green. It wasn’t entirely dead. Maybe enough rain came to moisten the earth, but not enough to fill the basin once more.
The monuments were getting nearer now, and he could see that they were all built alongside the lip of the lake. Within minutes he would be beside the first of them. As he walked, his head craned up and up the closer he got, and when he finally stuck his hands out to touch the solid rock the pillars were hewn from, he could barely see the top at all.
They were not so high as a mountain, but bigger than any tree. Over what must have been centuries, the edges of the rock had become rough, and divots now bit into the surface. He itched to climb it, to get to the very top so that he could see everything in this strange place. Maybe there was a hint at the top, too, some sort of writing or symbol to describe why the great pillars had been built. But the truth was, even though he might be able to scale the wall, he would never be able to get back down it again. He had climbed plenty of trees in his childhood, but this was no tree. It was a sheer column of granite, and no matter how many divots carved out hand-holds, it was not enough to form a staircase of any manner. He suddenly wished for something he had never thought he would wish for in his entire life.
If Lissa were with him, she could simply fly to the top, maybe even take him along with her, and see whatever was written there. Or maybe instead they would have found nothing at all, and the mystery would remain for all of eternity.
He moved on to the next one. They stood half a mile apart, and when he reached it he realized that it was formed out of an entirely different kind of stone than the first. The first had been granite, and that made sense. Granite was common and easy to find if one knew where to look.
But the rock this one was made of was much whiter than the rough stone that had fashioned the other one. And smooth. He ran his hand up the side of the pillar; no divots here. This stone had remained just as it must have been on the day of the monument’s creation.
He hurried on to the next, and just as before, the stone of this one was nothing like the first two. It had rough, scarred edges and was tinged with green. This seemed to be some sort of precious rock. Why would they have used it to construct something like this? And where had they gotten so much of it?
He ran his hands across the side and turned to look out at the remains of the lake. Had these been built for worship? And of what? The water?
That seemed to make some sense, as this part of the land seemed like an oasis compared to where he had come from. He wondered what it had been like to stand here with water lapping at the edges of the lake. Comforting, maybe, to see before you enough water to last any man a lifetime.
For the rest of the afternoon he walked from pillar to pillar, reaching his hands out to touch the walls of each one, some smooth, some rough, all different from one another. The sun fell toward the horizon and he stopped to settle himself for the night. He took out the last of his water and drank, leaving only a few swallows for the morning. He wished he could stay longer, to see more of the monuments before he jumped back home.
This would have to be enough. He had not seen many sights, but the handful of them he had seen had made his experience in Gedalta. He felt sure that the wonder of this place that he had experienced completely on his own was enough to last him his whole life.
Twilight descended, and he was nearly ready to lie down for his last night under the stars when he saw it. A flash of white.
He bolted up to his feet, heart pounding. He felt a thrill run through him, both of elation and fear.
What was it?
He had set up his little camp at the base of a gray pillar covered with lines of pink, another stone he did not recognize. The flash had come from behind the next pillar in the line.
He looked up into the sky. Did he have time? He quickly gathered his things and walked as quickly and quietly as possible toward the next column. Another flash darted out from behind the stone ahead.
He braced himself. He had never heard of dragons to be white. Was that possible? And if not, what then?
He stopped when he was thirty feet from the stone and crouched low. In the distance he heard the soft sound of crunching, and his heart plummeted into his chest. Whatever this beast was, he had interrupted it in the middle of a meal. Every instinct told him to turn back. Once he got out of earshot he could run. And would he find somewhere safe to sleep in the night? Maybe he should just jump home now while he was still intact.
A snorting sound came from the beast and his heart pounded anew. He knew that sound, but couldn’t place where from. The crunching continued. He sat still as one of the stone pillars, waiting, unable to will himself to leave now, to escape.
Everything happened fast, then. One of the beasts stepped out from behind a pillar and gave, unmistakably, a whinny. And when it did, ten or more others stepped out from where they had been hidden. The leader had a long strand of grass sticking out of the side of his mouth, and Kiron realized what the crunching sound had been. He stood up, relieved. These were just horses. But in the darkness he had missed something crucial.
The horses started at him as he began to walk toward them, his hand outstretched. As he neared, something stretched out from the back of the leader, something Kiron didn’t understand. There was one on either side of him, and they were white, impossibly bright. All of the light from the sun had disappeared, leaving a moonless sky, and yet these protrusions nearly glowed in the darkness. They moved up and down, making a great whooshing sound as the horse’s feet lifted from the ground. And then he realized.
They were wings.
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