After many days and nights of solitary wandering through the Wilderness of S— , I came at last to the shoreline shallows of the Western Sea where, in the distance, the slender minarets of the Adytum broke vertical lines across the sunset. I camped on the strand in the leeward shelter of a great rock, and at morning’s low tide, as the intervening sea receded, I crossed the wet gray sands.
It was said that the men and women who lived here in monastic contemplation were wise beyond all others in the West. I intended to press them for the truths I had pursued for some time now, across the world, in vain.
There are no walls that surround the Adytum, no fortifications built to forestall an invading host. Its remoteness is its protection, so that all who manage to find their way here are free to come and go. Those who join the ranks of the contemplatives never leave; visitors are given shelter and food for as long as they wish to stay.
I gained the Salt Stairs that lead up from the sands. At the top, I was met by a woman in a long robe tied at the waist with a rough hemp rope, the hood of the garment thrown back, and her black hair loose against her shoulders.
“Welcome to this place of peace,” she said. We walked toward the nearest building, a long low structure built of dark, rough-hewn stone. We stepped inside the arched entrance into an alcove. Here there were weapons of war left behind by their owners: daggers piled on a pedestal; spears and shields, swords and scabbards standing discarded, propped up against the walls.
“We ask that you go unarmed in the Adytum,” the wise woman said, turning to me. “You will not need your weapons here.”
I rested my longstaff against the stonework wall. Then I removed a belted scabbard, propping up my halfsword, Whisper, there next to the staff, struggling with some misgivings as I did so.
“No one touches these,” I said, pointing to my possessions, “except for me.”
“None here would touch any of these things,” the wise woman replied.
She led me further into the complex. Other men and women dressed in simple robes passed us, some smiling openly, others hurrying past with bowed heads. I was awestruck by the preternatural quiet all around us—our footfalls on the paths made no sound whatsoever—and, as if to counter its effects, I found myself unable to refrain from talking.
“Your accent,” I said to the wise woman, “it is distinctive.”
“Yes,” she said. “I came here from the Province of T—, some years ago now.”
“You must have fled the Conquest,” I said, shaking my head, “and its terrors.”
The wise woman stopped. “What is it that you think you will find here? We do not wish to be troubled by the outside world.”
“Indeed it is the outside world I wish to leave behind,” I said. “For it has failed me utterly.”
“I see.” Her gaze upon me was appraising and severe. Presently, she seemed to make a decision. “Then why not join me for a morning repast, and you may tell me of your troubles.”
She led us to a vaulted refectory hall, where long oaken tables and empty benches awaited crowded meal times. We seated ourselves at a smaller round table apart from the others, next to a leaded window looking out upon the tidal flats between the Adytum and the Western Shore. I felt sure I could see my footprints in the sand from my crossing of it.
A small boy with a shaved head and simple linen garments brought us bowls of olives, dried fruit, unsalted bread, and clear cold water in worn wooden cups. The wise woman smiled at me. I realized she was much younger than I had thought. There was a beauty in her unlined face and a directness in her gaze that made me feel awkward and ponderous.
She was waiting silently. Belatedly, I realized I was expected to tell my story.
So I began.
“I am not from this world,” I said. “I know it, but I have no proof of it. All my days are spent seeking the place I came from. In the City of R—, deep within the Great Library, I came across an ancient text in a language none now speak, save the Master Librarian himself. This is what he read to me.
“‘Distant Kingdom. At peace, at last, after many years of bloodshed, violence, and suffering. The people of this land looked upon the broken world they had risen above, this world of suffering they could no longer be part of. Their Loremasters worked magic never seen before. Distant Kingdom disappeared. All traces of it began to fade. Even its true name is now lost to us, and soon every memory of it in our world will be gone.’
“My home, Distant Kingdom—this is my home, this place that no longer exists.”
“How do you know?” the wise woman said.
“I remember it. It is difficult, but I remember....