Lyahn did not know where she was going. She simply ran, trying to feel the building around her, trying to understanding its structure, to find an exit.
She skidded to stop at an oddly unmarked, unassuming door, which stood out from the lavish corridor around her. Her street sense was screaming at her to keep going, but something drew her to the door, and slowly, she reached out and touched it, then gently pushed the door open, feeling the lightness in it’s hinges.
Inside was a verdant oasis, tall trees looking like they scraped the ceiling. The light of the sky, coming in through a huge glass panel a dozen or more stretches above her head, was dying with the sunset, but around her, on tall masts, gas lamps began to stutter to life, a snap, then a lick of flame, and finally, a muted light began to spread.
The pathway was broad, a fine gravel coating the ground. She turned, looking around her, seeing the trees rising up into a dark, leafy canopy above her head, and, listening, heard distant shouts and calls, but closer, even more tempting, the sound of water running.
She slowly moved towards it, slipping her shoes off, feeling the sand and gravel shifting and crunching beneath her feet, a texture, a sensation she had never felt before.
Presently, she reached a curved path, and in the centre of it, a fountain stood proud, water gently spraying out of the five pillars curved protectively, rolling down the five grey stone figures standing in a circle, hands linked, each wearing what was once a gold-leafed coronet. In the faded light, the shadows proliferated, fluttering around the figures. She walked, slowly, wonderingly, around the fountain, fingers trailing in the pool of water rimmed by thick heart-stone slabs, looking clean and pure.
A set of steps emerged from the pond, and she started up them, reaching the deep moat-pool, but as her bare feet touched the water, a stone platform slid out, letting her step onto the islet with the figures, under the light spray of lukewarm water.
An infectious smile touched her face, making her feel a warm glow, and she spun in the spray, head thrown back in the ecstasy of the moment. She laughed, freely, joyously, feeling the water caress her cheeks, run through her hair, over her clothing.
She felt stronger, more powerful, more regal, and at last, she knelt at the side of the pool, cupped her clean hands, and lifted water to her lips, feeling the sweet tang of the water energising her, rejuvenating her, enlivening her.
There was a hum from behind her, and she turned, slowly, rising to her feet, to see the statues glowing dimly, pulses of light rising up from the ground, illuminating them, softening stone to flesh.
Wide-eyed, she stared at the statues, weighing up her chances of running. She looked behind her, trying to guess if she could jump across the fountain’s moat, but some force inside her stopped that train of thought, leaving her crisply aware that the water could very well kill her.
She turned, and started regally walking towards the ring of statues, ducking gracefully below one of the sets of linked arms again, standing on the little flat mound of the islet, seeing the statues reaching a reddish glow around her. She realised her legs were slowly beginning to glow, too.
The hum in the air began to split into five melodies, playing smoothly together, weaving and mingling, a complex harmonic pattern in the melody.
This must be magic, thought Lyahn.
Not magic, came another thought, one not her own. She spun, her hair splaying out behind her, to see the eyes of the statues glowing with a white-cold light, blindingly so, and the rest of their bodies slowly brightening. We are the Elders of Kihedra.
“No,” she breathed aloud, shaking her head slightly.
We are the Elders of Kihedra, came another thought-voice, and it was repeated around the circle, each statue saying it.
What are you? Lyahn’s voice sounded curious, worried, but a million times more regal and powerful than it ever had before.
There was a sensation of laughter. Every person to come here for the last three thousand years has asked that question, child. Has the world changed so much that you do not even recognise neurografts? Sensing the puzzlement in her, the voice continued, a strong, male baritone. We are the Elders, the founders of the city of Kihedra. Four thousand years ago, we brought the Five Towers together under the rule of the High King, who took the name Kihedra for his city, and named the Five Towers thus: Eldera, the Tower of the Earth; Eluna, the Tower of the Moon; Elsolara, the Tower of the Sun; Elysmos, the Tower of the Cosmos; and Elilith, the Tower of the Elements.
Lyahn was transported back to her schoolroom, a matronly woman standing over her, reciting the story of Kihedra… except this story was vastly different.
We lived together in peace for a hundred years, before Elilith started plotting to take the city for themselves. They called Elilith the Tower of Broken Promises, and eventually, the Broken Tower, as it turned in on itself and self-destructed. One figure bowed their head in mourning. Elilith never returned, and Kihedra became the city of four Towers.
About a thousand years later, Tower Elilith tried to rejoin the city, but everyone knew of the promises they broke, the plots they made to take the city for their own. Ever since, Tower Elilith has stood in hatred of the other Towers.
“They took me,” said Lyahn, quietly but vehemently. “They took me when I was a baby, and stole me away, and tried to make me into a weapon against Kihedra!”
We know, child. We have Delved your mind through the neurograft; we have seen your memories, your thoughts, your desires. We know you, High Tower Vine Leaf Heralds The Sun of the Tower of the Earth. Elchalyahneldera.
Lyahn tried to turn, and run, but could not. Her body would not move, would not feel, and she let off a shriek, short and shrill, as the world faded to black around her, and she looked down over a city that glowed by its own light, pinpricks moving around like a swarm of bright-ants. Then the lights began to change, fade away, but the whole city became lit, and she could see changes, the city changing like a giant coral, bits growing, dying, decaying away.
Thousands of years have passed since we built our city, and it has changed in ways we could never have dreamed of. The High Kings have become High Queens, the Towers became Houses, the names and words changed.
The voice became contemplative, as the growth of the city began to slow again, looking oddly familiar. She looked around, to see five figures wearing long, flowing robes, each with a thick braid. We last fully awoke fifty years ago, and met a girl much like you. She was turmoiled, within. At last, Lyahn, worked out which of the voices belonged to who; the man in front, a tall man with a serious, angular face, and a curve with a single, stylised flame seated atop it in golden thread, marking the badge of his house.
Before her, another girl appeared, even more vaguely familiar, looking worried and frail. She turned towards Lyahn, and finally, she recognised the face.
“Mother?” Lyahn’s voice broke with the sudden rush of emotions.
She is your mother, Elaynaeldera – High Tower Tread Prints On Clay of the Tower of the Earth. She came to us, as has every ruler of Kihedra at one point in their lives or another. You come to us early, child, not seeking anything, not trying to hide from another, or find a better truth. You wish to know whether you should become the High Queen.
“Yes!” cried Lyahn, falling to her knees, the figures grouping around her again, watching her impassively.
You are the best person who has ever stepped into the neurograft. You alone in the last four thousand years are able to bring back our shared dream, and the dream we have given to every person to enter this place. You must be Queen, to restore Kihedra. You can restore Tower Elilith, you can reunite the nobles and the proletariat, the senate and the plebeians. Go forth, Elchalyahneldera, and restore our city.
They stepped towards her, removing their coronets from their heads, and she realised each glowed with a different colour. Each, in turn, was placed on her head, where it flared brightly, then faded, leaving a golden ringing in her head each time.
Go forth, Elchalyahneldera.
All five placed their hands on her head, and with a violent wrenching sensation, an odd slippage, and the taste of burned fish, she fell.
No longer glowing, no longer thrumming, no longer the regal majesty, she lay there, panting, body stretched full length on the ground. The world around her looked fuzzy, and oddly, the air felt solid, as if she was breathing through water, or a solid wall.
She groaned, and tried to lever herself upright, but gave up, and held onto the island instead, feeling bruised and shaken, trying to hyperventilate the sky that stood above her. She patted herself down, quickly: all her limbs were still there, her shoes laying beside her where they tumbled down – she didn’t remember falling.
Rolling onto her back, she looked up to the sky, seeing the twinkling of stars, and she guessed she had been there for a few hours.
She thought back, in her mind, and gasped thinly, feeling memories carefully bundled up in her mind, waiting for her to tap into them… memories, she found, of the city, of everything the Elders had told her…
She forced herself upright, her vision spinning around her. The whole place felt oddly disjointed, but the fuzz in her mind was slowly clearing. She knew, with certainty, that she was going to be Queen. Now, to get out of this place…
She staggered to her feet, trying not to fall flat on her face as she did so, picked up her boots, and stepped gingerly forward, ducking under the dark ring of interwoven arms, grabbing one of the oddly warm limbs to support herself.
Blindly, she walked towards the steps, not noticing the platform flashing out beneath her feet, and she made her way mindlessly off the islet, falling to her knees at the bottom of the steps, feeling the ground beneath her, solid and real.
She lay there, barely conscious of her surroundings, coming to grips with everything in her head, the memories and thoughts of thousands of years of people rolling around her head, an incessant chatter of voices and images.
At last, she stood, standing tall, not trying to hide her height, feeling her hair and skin, damp and comfortable. She looked at the strands of her hair that were strung over her shoulder, descending to her midriff, seeing much of the muck and knots that usually characterised them gone, and yet, she saw nothing but clean stone and clean water on the islet behind her.
Lyahn reached out, feeling for her sister, and starting to move towards her, passing along the broad path, pushing through the doorway, into the dim corridor, lavishly hung and covered. With a sigh, she started climbing through the dark corridors, towards where she knew her sister was.