Every morning the shadow crept closer, as if drawn to them. Cora would stand at the top of the temple’s crystalline spire, ready to ring in the morning, and watch as the sun cracked the horizon, a fiery split where the sea met the sky. She would mark the length of the Tower’s encroaching presence by sketching landmarks on her paper, drawing a hard line where the shadow stopped. First kissing the rocky shore, then docks, and now the main street, day by day, it was closing in on the temple itself.
“The sunrise is our renewal,” her father would say as they sat for the communal breakfast in the temple’s hall. Her mother’s idea, a way to keep morale up, though Cora wasn’t feeling the benefit. When the entire town’s population had shrunk to fit in the same room, the rows of empty chairs pushed to the walls began to remind her of grave markers.
“Is the tower getting closer, or is it getting taller?” Old Mabel would ask Cora. The woman’s eyes were failing, but Cora saw her right before noon, slowly hobbling toward the shore to find the looming shadow. Cora thought she must notice when it became cooler, yet most days she stopped short of the darkness. “The closer it gets, the less walking I have to do,” said Mabel, before the coughing fit that had replaced her laugh. “Maybe those things across the sea aren’t so bad as we think.”
At night, Cora stared at the ceiling above her bed, unable to close her eyes and face the nightmares that waited in the dark. But the fear was exhausting, and the dreams always came. In them, she was surrounded by smooth, angled movements, like sharks, always hidden at the corners of her vision. Lurking at the edge of her mind, but there to snap at her if she turned away. Circling, though she could not see what they were. Circling, coming closer, a vortex of unearthly antipathy. A promise of what was to come.
Cora could feel the unopened letter waiting on her bed like an itch that she dare not scratch. Two days since it arrived, the first mail delivered in weeks. All the time she’d waited for it felt like small eternities, heartbeats stretched across years. Now that she had it, she didn’t know what to do. The finality of reading it was too much.
“You are part of the temple now, Cora,” her mother told her in the morning as they peeled potatoes outside the temple kitchen. “You cannot get into fights with parishioners.”
“I can defend myself from them, though,” Cora said, jerking the knife back and forth, taking big chunks out of her potato.
“When I told you to be brave, you know that’s not what I meant,” said her mother. She frowned at the misshapen, jagged potato Cora set on the counter. “Reggie is not a bad man, and he did you no slight by asking your approval of his proposal.”
“Reggie is no man at all,” Cora said as she cut into another potato. “If he were, he wouldn’t be here. He’d be fighting.”
“Is that what you think bravery is, then?” her mother asked. “A boy with a spear?”
“Isn’t it?” Cora felt her cheeks flush as the frustration built.
“That feeling of helplessness,” her mother said, putting a hand on Cora’s arm. “There is bravery there, too. Faith in the face of adversity, as you should know. No man fights alone while he has someone who loves him believing he can make it home.”
Bravery in action, she told herself, even if the spirit flinches. After the evening meal, she lit a candle and opened the water-stained letter. She felt the thin paper between her fingers, the rough edges, smelled the lingering salt of the sea, and started reading the familiar handwriting.
“The shore here is like nothing I have ever seen. Smooth, black ridges of jagged glass–like dark crystal. It reminds me of the temple spire back home, which, in turn, reminds me of you.
“We have seen heavy fighting since our arrival. The things come out of glass dunes around the tower like the receding tide, trying to push us back to the water. We hold our ground. It costs us men by the hour, but none of us will retreat. Even so, it was a long time before that meant anything. Who can say how many of the beasts exist, and if those we kill matter to the enemy’s strength? It is not enough to keep our footing if we cannot step forward.
“As I write this, men from each village are discussing a plan. They want to concentrate for a decisive push to the tower itself, to try and get inside. I swear I can see that great monolith scraping the clouds above, and soon it will grow so high we might never see the top again. We all know this push will be expensive, perhaps it will cost us everything, but we cannot wait for attrition to lose us the battle before it starts.
“I’m sending this on the final boat out. This may be the last time you ever hear from me. Cora, I love you. You know I love you. As much as anything else in this world, you are the reason I am here. If this works, then I will find a way to come home. If it doesn’t, then I will spend what is left of my life hurting them as much as the thought of losing you hurts me. Gods willing, that alone will knock the tower into the sea.
Cora, I am going to come home.”
It was another week of silence, each morning more ominous than the next. Until the morning that wasn’t.
Cora stood by the bell, watching the tower cut through the sun at the horizon. She sketched the shadow. Then she sketched it again. Then she nearly fell down the ladder in the rush to get to her room, flying past her mother and father as they asked her what she was doing.
In her room, Cora took out the pile of old sketches. She laid yesterday’s out on her bed, setting her two new drawings beside it. There was no denying it. The shadow had retracted.
They had won.
He was coming home.
She rang in the day, shouting along with the bell, letting the booming sound carry her pent-up frustration out to sea. That night, she dreamed of the wave that would carry the boats back into the harbour, and through the clear, crystal water she saw the sun, warm and calm, and the blue horizon without a shadow to mar it.