We came to the coast once more early on the morning, and even as the Sun rose we could see its light glittering off the blue domes of our destination even before it fell across the seas beyond.
It was said that Zodiac had been founded by a company of Royales who departed the fair city of Magnificat many years ago. I had once visited Magnificat as a traveller riding alone, and the memory of that journey remained never far from my thoughts.
As we left our mounts fed and watered on the outskirts of the city, so I was able to see a certain resemblance within these dome-topped halls and the spire-topped palaces of that ancient place. But more than that, this city brought to mind legends of the great temples and river of the Golden Delta, while the walls of water that fell straight and true down hand-made cliffs brought forth tales of the floating retreat of Sanctum, said to be held aloft on pillars of crystal waters.
From the high mountains around Auxentios’ Pass, we at length descended to warmer lands. For the first part of our journey down from that strange, steam-powered town nestled in its high pass, we were led by one of the clanking, hissing machines that so startled and amazed us on first seeing them.
Driven by man sitting in a closet-like space below the rounded belly of the mechanical beast, the machine walked with a clumsy, yet sure-footed grace in response to the levers he pulled and pushed. A second man seated before him in that iron closet used the long funnel extending before it to blast our path with steam that cleared away the frost and ice, allowing us safe passage over the smooth rock that might otherwise have been as treacherous as glass beneath feet and hooves.
Even after the machine had stood aside to let us continue down warmer slopes towards the tree line below, it was hard not to keep looking back up the hard rock path to try to catch sight of our strange companion, even though we all knew we had left it behind and the echoing sound of its heavy footfalls echoed down to us as it made its way back up to its home in the snows.
Renewed by the beauty of Agra Adara, we crossed the inland sea to arrive at Autumnium. Scarce could the change be greater; from the arid lands that washed around the golden domes and minarets of that now distant haven of peace and the golden lands of Autumnium, a place forever caught between the greens of summer and the white and grey of winter.
Here the the trees grew tall, rich in yellow and orange and ochre and red, boughs heavy with leaf even as the ground lay under a carpet of golden grass heavy with leaves that had already fallen. Through these trees the wind blew gently, stirring branches and rippling through the wheat-like grass with a gentle sigh of warmth.
We followed the paved road up from the docks and through the trees the were a small town raised steep blue roofs and taller round towers between the surrounding blanket of trees. here were throngs of people, laughing, happy, and moving freely from shop to store and back as music floated down from high towers.
At the centre of the town was a great throng laughing, singing dancing, with more up on the hill above, moving among standing stones. These stones stood apart from the golds and yellows of Autumnium, for they lay among a rich carpet of green grass looking like an emerald amongst the amber grass and trees. Nor were the people dancing between and around the stones, so to did swirls of light and colour, turning and twirling between the ancient stones. Then, as I watched, two magnificent winged horses swept down from the burnished blue sky, their riders tall and fair, to land on the grass. Riders and mounts bowed us as we passed along the road below them, and I found myself longing to once again stay our journey, but we had tarried enough along our path, and so we moved on.
Beyond the borders of Heliodor the lands changed. Verdant grass and trees gave way to scrub, then rock and sand. As they changed, so did the say above, turning to the pale blue of burnished steel, the Sun hot and painful to the eyes. Hard and unwelcoming, these were lands that gave birth to doubt and the desire to turn back from our path and seek again the haven offered by the elves of Heliodor once more.
But onward we strove, company and horses wilting in equal measure under the heat of the Sun and huddled against the cold nights that awaited at the end of each day. We were drawn by the mystical promise of Agra Adara, and when its golden domes and slender minarets rose through the horizon’s haze, we all could not help but be lifted in spirit and pace, despite the Sun’s heat until at last we came to the gates of the city as it sat between the seas of sand and water.
Standing as a beacon of light in the surrounding darkness of desert and sea, Agra Adara is a place that defies description for those who have not seen it. Scarce have I found a place more strange to my eyes: the peoples here be-robed in white or bright colours even to their heads, their skins warmed brown by the Sun, their eyes bright stars filled with greeting, their houses and buildings natural palaces of cool air, rich carpets and tiles that carried the heat of the body away through the very soles of our boots.
Our departure from Elemaria was for me a mixture of sadness and joy. Sadness, because my heart wanted yet to stay among these people of nature, and wander through their gardens and woods and study their herb lore and ways within their great libraries. The joy that countered it was because our onward path would be shared with a company of elves who had also paused at Elemaria on their way back to their homes in Heliodor.
It has been many a long year since I had first looked upon elven folk. I had been so much younger then, and knew not what to expect as entered the fabled – and now long-hidden woods – of Evensong. Even so, their voices and song had long echoed in my thoughts and dreams ever since, so hearing such voices again, even amidst so many fine and fair voices of the people of Elemaria, set my heart soaring.
In truth, the elves of Heliodor are very different to their kinsfolk of the woods. Long ago they left the green halls of the forests and woods, their devotion to the ideals of creation and growth leading them to find a place where they could settle and create things of beauty and utility. And so they founded the city of Heliodor, the artisans and architects who lived there gaining fame throughout the known world for their skills and crafts.