I forged forward, pushing through the thicket with my sword at my side. The thorns scratched against my arm as twigs and leaves crunched beneath my feet. Coupled with the sounds of crows and crickets from behind me, I was sick in my stomach.
For all the water surrounding the island, this dead hill rising out of the endless swamp, I couldn’t believe all the plants here were lifeless, dry to the core. I stared up through the branches as I ducked under a thicker branch I couldn’t easily push aside and saw the gray sky. I wondered if it ever rained or if the clouds were always distant and dry.
I could see a bit of light up ahead and hoped it was the end of this tiresome copse. It had crept up upon me as quickly as I’d stepped on the island, and so long I’d been stuck in here I couldn’t be certain if I was still headed in the right direction at all. For how small the island had looked when I spotted it, I should have been back in the swamp before long. Any other knight would have been discouraged, but for me, it only confirmed I had found the place. Now if only I could get past this trap and into it.
A few minutes later I reached the light: It wasn’t an end at all, just a large bronze sheet that rose higher than me and leaned away from me. I looked past the branches to my right and saw there was another plate some ways down through the trees; to my left I noticed a third. I started grinning, even though a thorny bush was pressing uncomfortably against my inner thigh at the moment, but I couldn’t keep the smile from my face. Surely, this was it! The sign I was looking for. But how–how could it have come to this?
I snapped a thick branch to clear the path to my right and then stepped between the two plates of bronze. From the sides, they were only inches thick, but especially here, that was all they needed to be.
If anything, the thicket was thicker on the other side.
I groaned as I pressed onward, caught myself trading glanced between the gray sky and the ground below, trying to find the sun through the clouds or the ground I was certain was somewhere, if only I could reach it.
After a while, the thorns and tree roots began thinning. If I rubbed my boot across the ground for a moment, brushed aside all the ages of debris gathered there since time had ended on the island, I could see the broken bricks of yellow and gold that, sun-faded, looked as dingy and dry as the lifeless plants all around me.
The bricks became more prominent as I went on, stopped being broken fragments of just one or two and slowly started being whole patches of the courtyard beneath me, two or three in a line or five or six clustered together. After a while, I could begin to see the slight curvature of the lines, each of them a small sector of the circle it traced on the ground. I knew then I was headed in the right direction. I knew then, I was certain then I was heading toward the center.
I saw up ahead the trees were so thin there weren’t any and I noticed that for the past few yards I hadn’t been struggling as hard as before. I pushed forward with renewed vigor, ever more eager to reach my destination. I saw the bricks beneath me almost unharmed save for the fading of time that had turned them sand-colored. I saw up ahead the fountain, the torch, the end of the line.
There were no trees, no brush, no thorns for a yard all around it. I saw the small stone tower, no higher than my waist, standing tapered and six-sided at the center of the circles, made of the same stone as the bricks. At its top, a basin sat with its heart open to the world above.
Inside would be my answer. The cure for the king’s daughter. The elixir of the sun.
I stopped breathing without thinking about it, slid my feet forward across the bricks until I could peer inside.
I recoiled at once: The basin was full of slugs and gnats, slime and sludge crusting the bottom. It was the only wet anything I had seen for hours. Unfortunately I wasn’t surprised to not find the elixir pure. No quest in the land of the sun ever ended easily.
I reached into a satchel at my side and drew out a flint. If what was there was unusable, I’d simply have to craft some more. But before I could go so far, I’d have to return the temple to its prior glory. Otherwise, it wouldn’t grow.
I struck the flint and watched the sparks fly. A few landed in the basin and I smiled, striking it again. This time the sludge caught fire and I watched as bits of black smoke erupted from the ashes of flies, listened as the burning slugs crackled and popped.
I kept striking my flint, letting the sparks fly into the thicket. It caught fire quickly, the fire quickly spread, and soon it was all around me. I sat down by the tower and waited.
I’d been born a Son of Fire and the flames didn’t bother me. The smoke sometimes became a bit stifling, but the fire itself was nothing of my concern. After a while, I simply curled up on my side and fell asleep.
When I awoke for the second or third time, all the island had burned down. The horizon stretched as far as I could see, all the way until the bronze plates that formed a circle at the ends of the sun’s court. The sand-colored bricks were soot-stained in places, but in the new light, specks of gold sparkled from inside them.
I stood up and turned around. The basin atop the tower was still burning, but now its flames were pure and smokeless. I smiled, nodding, and looked up toward the sky. I could see the sun burning through the clouds, and I knew soon the rains would come and the clouds would dissipate. The sun god Aren was waking at last.
I sat down again and waited.
The rains came. Small seedlings sprouted from the ground, grew into a garden of budded bushes and slender trees all around me. When the flowers all opened and an indescribable sweetness filled the air, I knew it was time.
I gathered the leaves of the sacred saplings, the flowers of the forgotten brush, and a bit of bark, too. I took them gently to the tower at the center: The flames had been extinguished and now a shallow pool of rain water clung to the bottom, reflecting the sun staring straight above. I was almost sad to see the reflection broken.
There was a small false wall of the tower, and after sliding it aside, I took out a large club stained red at the end from inside the hollow space that had held it for eons. I lifted the club over the basin and then brought its head into the water.
I began churning it slowly, crushing the leaves. Crushing the flowers. Crushing the bark. I worked there for hours, worked there for days, collecting more leaves, collecting more flowers, and collecting more bark until the mixture, which once had looked like mud, began to look like blood.
I set the club back in its compartment and slid the stone in front of it before wiping the sweat from my brow. I stared at my pile of armor a small distance away, sparkling in the pure sunlight no matter its new layering of rust. I looked at my hands, stained red and blistered. I lifted a shirt from the ground and dabbed it across my body until I was dry, then I took some bandages, all that remained after months, and wrapped my hands.
Then I geared up as best as I could and took a small vile from the satchel. It was teardrop-shaped and made of thick glass, barely breakable. I dipped it into the elixir of the sun and when it was full, corked it tight.
Then I began my journey home.
It took me a year in Aren’s light to reach the bronze plates, but when I walked a little further, I found the swamp had dried up and turned into a lush rainforest all around the sun’s court. I could hear the animals in the distance, but couldn’t see them. I could smell the sweetness, the earthiness, the freshness. I didn’t lament the swamp for a single heartbeat.
The journey to the beginning of the world wasn’t nearly as long as the journey had been from the end of it, coming here, and after a few days’ time I was upon familiar shores and the rainforest behind me was gone.
I hailed a caravan in the first city I found to take me to the capital. We traveled together for a few days, no one asking me any questions. Maybe they thought warriors in rusted armor never had good stories to tell. Perhaps they recognized me and were afraid to ask of the sacred lands.
I reached the castle and they barred my entry. I told them who I was and showed them elixir I had brought for the king’s daughter. The two shared a glance and nodded, brought me inside and led me toward the throne room. In the time I’d been away, the furnishings had changed and been rearranged. Where once was red and gold was black.
When I reached the king, he stood and walked toward me. He was older than I remembered, more wrinkles on his face, more depth to his eyes. I took the elixir from my satchel and held it out toward him, but instead he took my shoulders, shook his head, and hugged me.
The elixir slipped from my grip and I heard glass shatter.
The king backed away and looked to my right. I followed his gaze, noticed a new window had been cut into the castle’s walls. Through it I saw the kingdom, and on the horizon, I saw another castle. One built of black stones. The castle of the dead.
The king turned away, but I didn’t care for his company any longer. I knelt down and lifted a sliver of glass that still held a single sip of the sun’s elixir and then I carried it away. Perhaps for another princess. Perhaps for another day.