With practiced precision, Kyund released a narrow stream of flame in through the small hole in the side of the massive eternice sphere. It spread like a fluid, growing brighter and louder as it steadily filled its container. When it finished, the festival ground was illuminated by the great orange and yellow globe, as beautiful and warm as Sol Himself. Then after only a moment, the fire snuffed out, leaving only grey smoke in its wake.
“Blast!” Kyund swore, stomping his foot. “I don’t understand why this keeps happening.”
“Does this not typically happen?” asked Dovetail.
“No, this doesn’t happen!” the kamenclo snapped. He took a long breath. “The pyromancer before me passed only recently. While I’ve never attempted to fill a vessel of this size before, my flames have never had a problem with eternice in the past.”
Despite the lack of proper illumination, the festival grounds were a sight to behold. The walls were made from glistening bricks of snow and ice crystals. Volunteers were hanging the deep blue flag of Openhearth, decorated with snowflakes in the shape of Yulip’s Guide. Opalescent statues of the city’s former leaders marked the edges of an ice-skating rink with a fountain of colorless Dol chocolate in its center. There was a glistening jungle gym, a deep blue stage backed by a wall of flowing ice, and booths for everything from speed painting to DIY gingerbread houses.
As predicted, the Sol-worshipping volunteers kept their distance from Elma and Bagel, who stood alone a few yards from the empty sphere. Elma cleared her throat. “We’ve got an idea.”
“I don’t need your help,” Kyund grumbled.
“But the Twice-Burning –” Bagel started.
“I do not need the Twice-Burning Flame!” Kyund barked. “I will light the fire on my own. Chasing myths on such a time-budget is both unnecessary and foolhardy, the kind of idea a child would offer. I should expect nothing less from a moon howler.”
“Excuse me?” Bagel growled.
Dovetail positioned themself between the two parties. “What’s the Mice-Turning Frame?”
“A fairytale,” said Kyund.
“A holy flame that keeps travelers warm in the thickest of blizzards,” said Elma. “It’s located here in the Frostlands. It can’t be put out, and the eternice can’t melt.”
“Then we should find it,” Dovetail agreed.
“We already know where it is.’
Kyund stomped his foot and the ground shuddered once. “You will not steal my ice sculptor on some foolish quest! I will light the fire and I will hear no more of this. You know there is law in our town charter that says Cylgin may be expelled from the city for any reason? And another that lists the disruption of Snowverture as a crime.”
“Not a very open hearth,” murmured Bagel.
“Threaten us with your archaic laws all you want,” said Elma, “but I believe the Theallations guide us for a reason. At first I thought it was this new cloak, but now I believe it’s for this. For the Twice-Burning Flame.”
“Theallations?” asked Dovetail.
Elma reached into an olive rucksack and produced a small, leather-bound notebook. “Some call them constellebrae, or dark constellations. Thea, the Warm Moon, uses them to guide the faithful, and we keep a log of their destinations. That’s how Bagel and I decide where to travel when we can’t make up our minds.”
Kyund snorted. “How could you have followed them here? There hasn’t been a full Warm Moon in nearly a full cycle.”
“Bagel doesn’t need one,” Elma said nonchalantly. “He always sees them.”
Kyund grew still, turning his attention to the stone statue of Yulip Howkirk.
“Bread denture time!” Dovetail chirped. The pyromancer growled.
Elma and Bagel explained that their journal of the Theallations was a project started by Elma’s sibling, Pom. Legend has it that each of the star clusters led to a location that was tied to that which it symbolized. What these locations were was a subject of great debate, because depending on your point of origin, following the stars can lead you to any number of places. When Elma and Bagel expressed their intent to live a life of travel, Pom gave them the journal. They took of note of where Thea’s light took them from time to time, judging whether it might be the intended location.
In one of Pom’s early entries, they claimed to have found the location of the Twice-Burning Flame by following the Innkeeper’s Candle, a constellation derived from the nursery rhyme that made the flame famous. “When all the world is thick with white, seek the Innkeeper’s twice-burning light,” the rhyme began.
Kyund believed this to be nonsense, but the pyromancer was outvoted. After all, the location referenced in the journal was only three hours east of town, in a cave nestled among the hilly tundra where the Frostlands transitioned to the mountains. The X-shaped entrance was impossible to spot among any conventional road, but Pom had indicated a stone structure that resembled a flower crown not far from its entrance, allowing the travelers to find it without wandering off the beaten path for long.
The tight, craggy cavern widened until it was the size of a modest bedroom. There was an unnatural chill about. Silver sconces lined the walls, their fires long gone out, and the melted wax of the candles clung frozen to their fixtures like milky icicles. Along the walls was a continuous painting of a mountain range, with hordes of people traveling toward the center of the back wall, but the artistry was dimmed by the sheet of frost that now clung to the stone.
Three images shone through the white curtain: the dual luminescent crescents of the Pale and Warm Moons, and Sol, half-obscured by the mountains.
“This was a waste of time,” said Kyund, turning to leave almost as soon as he entered.
“What’s the matter?” asked Dovetail, tilting their head creakily. “You don’t like the painting?”
“He thinks this is a temple of the Setting Sun,” murmured Bagel from atop Elma’s head.
“It clearly is!” Kyund snapped, pointing to the image of Sol.
“They’re violent extremists who claim to represent our people,” said Elma. “They’ve been known to kidnap and forcibly convert Sol worshippers.” She raised her voice, making a point to speak to Kyund, “but we disavow them, because the Cylgin walk a peaceful path. Most of us don’t even eat meat.”
“Please don’t leave, Mr. Kyund,” called Dovetail. “I think you’re mistaken! Look, the way the mountains are clustered, this must be O’grofkala, to the east! Sol isn’t setting, it’s rising!”
Kyund turned around, his blocky frame completely filling the exit to the cave. “That’s complete conjecture,” he said.
“So is your theory,” said Elma.
Once again, Dovetail attempted to keep the peace. “Either way, think about how great it would be if you returned to Openhearth with the Twice-Burning Flame. You could honor Sol with a wonderful tribute, and you’ll have recovered a legendary artifact! Just give this a chance.”
There was an audible rumbling in the kamenclo’s chest as he mulled this over. After a spell, he outstretched both his arms with his palms facing inward, and a sphere of bright orange flame manifested between them. The cave’s other occupants stepped aside as the sphere floated forward to the center of the room, illuminating everything more clearly and raising the temperature significantly. The frost began to melt off the walls, running onto the floor in a shallow puddle. At the center of the back wall, where all the painted people marched, the outline of a door was revealed.
“The bread denture continues,” whispered Elma, fanning herself.
A beautiful, aged stone banquet hall lay beyond the mural, likewise coated in frost. A silver chandelier lit the room once upon a time; now a single flickering candle was the sole illumination. There were untouched pastries at several of the chairs, which Elma was repeatedly told not to eat.
(“Hard as a rock anyway,” she whined, dropping one on the floor with a thud).
The structure was more reminiscent of a hostel than a temple, with sleeping quarters and washrooms and even a small library. There was a small chapel for worship, wherein a diorama of Solkin levitated near the ceiling, orbiting Sol and orbited by the moons, all of which glowed with seemingly natural light. It was the only sign of life in the frosted hideout.
Beneath the false sun was an opaque floor of sky-blue crystal. It overlooked a pit, where various long structures swirled through the air like debris caught in a whirlwind. A circular black stone hatch was built into the floor, barred by a thick book-sized padlock that glowed a soft green.
“This is the place,” said Bagel confidently. “That lock is a Tutelary Seal. It requires some kind of magical interaction – usually writing a word using a spell. A long time ago, these were on the doors to every Cylgin temple and safehouse. It was believed that magic was a gift from the Goddesses, and those who excelled in it were worthy of divine favor.”
“A bigoted belief that was cast away centuries ago,” Elma assured. “Many humans, minotaur, and some other species are incapable magic, making it an apocryphal test of divinity. It remains useful for locking doors, however.
“Kyund, is your magic elemental?” Kyund nodded. Elemental magic referred to spells that were cast without much schooling or discipline, but rather as an expression of its caster’s personality and will. They tended to be narrow in scope, but no less potent than more traditional magic. “I thought so. Elemental fire normally manifests in pompous nobles with volatile tempers.”
Kyund drew a line on the frosted floor with his flat foot. “I’ve had it with your mouth, moony!” he snapped.
“Well if you’d listened before you proved my point, you’d know that I was about to say the goddesses must have sent you to us with purpose, for while some locks are restricted to a certain source of magic, elemental magic behaves like most sources, and can open any lock.”
“Well perhaps if your exposition was not couched in insults –”
“You called her a name,” said Bagel.
“She started it,” said Kyund, crossing his arms and casting his eyes toward the lock.
“All of you need to reshave yourselves,” chirped Dovetail.
“Don’t tell me to be nice to this arse—” Elma swallowed her words sharply. “I do not wish to be kind to one who thinks so lowly of me,” she whispered.
Dovetail put a metallic hand on her arm gently. “I thunder sand,” they said, “but we need to work together if we’re going to get down there.”
“Why should I even wish to get down there?” asked Kyund. “This is a temple of my enemy. How do I know they have not lured me here to harm me?”
Elma rolled her eyes.
Dovetail gestured to the solar system model above them. “Back in Skymoore, the church of Sol had one of these hanging from the ceiling. Are these common in your churches, Kyund?”
“They wouldn’t be now,” said Bagel, “but they certainly used to be. This is the immediate space around Solkin as outlined in the Passage of Wanderers, before the Later Texts sparked debate over whether the Warm Moon cast its own light.”
Kyund looked surprised at Bagel. “The pixie is correct. This may be a temple to Sol after all, but…I don’t understand it. I don’t like it, either.”
Dovetail pulled up a chair and used it to reach the diorama. “Well, let’s try to understand, then!” they suggested. “I always like things better when I understand. For example, I realize now that the surface of this Solkin is reflective on its western hemisphere. If we align the Pale Moon like so, where it will reflect the light of both the Warm Moon and Sol over to Solkin…”
The yellow and orange rays of the model celestial bodies reflected downward off the miniature Solkin, casting their reddish glow on the Tutelary Seal, illuminating a faint white shape on the lock. Two crescents faced inward, leaving a hole in the center.
“This is all wrong,” said Kyund. “The Warm Moon doesn’t cast its own light; it merely borrows more of it from Sol because it is much closer. Any astrologer could tell you that. Star Mother gave Sol the ability to cast life-giving light, the first of Her children to share Her gifts, so that He may raise His own children here on Solkin. The moons merely borrow Sol’s light, and only after they begged for it, jealous of His eternal radiance and desperate for worshippers of their own.”
“How dare you,” snapped Elma, despite Bagel’s protests. “That isn’t right at all. Before Thea was a moon, she was a giant, so powerful and fierce that she gives off natural glow and heat. For years she carved this world from hand until it was perfect, removing earth from the ground to carve valleys, and using that earth to build mountains. Her sister, Nala, added color to their creation with trees and oceans and sky. They only created the sun so they could see their creation from afar. That this created the perfect cocktail for life to thrive was merely an interesting coincidence.”
“That’s your creation story?” scoffed Kyund. “Some sisters played in the mud and we crawled out by mistake? You lunatics are more of a mockery than I thought. Our life was intentional, an experiment between Mother and Sun to see if mortal life, life without divinity and omnipotence, could be worthy of their gifts. It is up to us to prove that they placed their faith in good hands, to be the best we can be, so that Star Mother might see fit to reward us with a heavenly eternity, and go on to make a whole universe of Grand Children.”
“Do not talk down to us,” said Bagel. “Your faith is narcissistic from the beginning of mortality to its end. All cruelty to others is justifiable because you’re father’s special children and they, for whatever reason you decide, are not.”
Dovetail hopped dramatically down from their chair to place themself in between the two parties. “That mark’s pretty enter testing, isn’t it? I bet this hatch much lead somewhere pretty special!” Their sudden action notably displaced the tension in the room, and everyone eased.
“I just trace that with fire?” Kyund asked, kneeling beside the Seal. A short, thin flame protruded from his fingertip like a fiery nail. “Still don’t like this place, but it’s got my interest.”
After he burned a black image onto the lock over the symbol, the Seal ceased the glow, and there was a soft click. The Seal came apart in Kyund’s hands, and the crystal hatch swung open. A ladder led downward. “I’ll go last,” said Kyund. “I’m the heaviest.”
“How do we know you won’t just close that behind us?” asked Elma.
“You said your goddesses sent him to us, right?” asked Dovetail.
Elma scrunched up her face. “You’re too trusting.” Nonetheless, she and Bagel were the first ones down.
The chamber at the bottom of the ladder was composed primarily of two rectangular platforms separated by a considerable chasm with no discernable bottom. Ten doors of varying colors lined the rear wall just behind the ladder, and one massive door of yellow stone sealed by thick orange and white chains lie across the pit. In between the two sides, ancient stone walkways of different lengths circled above the drop like debris caught in a lazy cyclone.
“Looks like we got ourselves a proper puzzle,” Bagel stated as the others reached the bottom.
“With all these pieces, do you think it might be a twig saw?” asked Dovetail excitedly. “Oh, but how would we hold them?”
“You’re not far off,” said Kyund as he hopped off the penultimate rung. “I think I know what this is, and it only further confounds me.”
“Are you going to illuminate us?” Bagel asked, after a ponderous silence.
Kyund muttered something under his breath, then cleared his throat with a long scraping sound. “The Earliest Texts describe the road to Solaria as a literal path, hidden somewhere within our world. In the Later Texts, another theory was set forth, called the Segmented Road. Put concisely, the theory states that the road to Solaria is a metaphysical one, one of varying length based on your lifespan and your faith. Rather than a fixed journey as presented by the Earliest Texts, the Segmented Road was different for everyone, with each individual walking the ten segments, representing the mortal foibles which tempt us to sin, in their own way. The length and the order of these segments is different for everyone.”
“The doors behind us…” Dovetail began. “They’re the ten segments?” Each door had a title etched into the frame, written in various scripts. “History,” read one in Dwarvish. “Greed,” read another in Human. There were even titles written in Minotaur and Halfling, languages which had fallen out of use centuries ago.
“This one says ‘Study,’” Elma said, reading the Elvish script. “How’s study going to tempt anyone to sin? Tempt them to sleep, maybe…”
“Knowledge is a gift and a curse,” said Bagel. “Some use their knowledge to better themselves and their world, others use it to hold power over the ignorant and extort the underprivileged.”
“Some use it to bully and exclude travelers of a different faith.”
“Okay!” Dovetail said, taking a step forward. “Let’s go through the Faith door!” The door in question was of moss-green stone with the title written in Gnomish. “You should all be great at it! It’ll be a flan-pan-stick bonding flex-per-size!”
Kyund grunted. “Very well. Let us proceed.”
The door opened with ease. Beyond, there was only darkness coated with a gleaming white mist. Dovetail led the way, stepping forward as the damp air coated their synthetic eyes. “Wow, this stuff’s pretty thick,” they noted, their voice echoing faintly. “Watch your step, every…body?”
Dovetail looked back the way they came to find no door behind them, only mist. “Hello?” they asked the open air, and nobody responded, save Tedmund, who croaked from within Dovetail’s pocket. “Elma? Bagel? Kyund?” The mist seemed only to thicken in response. They were alone.
Worse yet, Elma and Bagel could be alone with Kyund. Worried for all three of their sakes, Dovetail hurried through the hazy dark.
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