It’s the most beautiful city you’ll ever see, she told me.
But if I don’t find it, then the world will forever forget her story.
And so I stood in the Valley of a Thousand Paths, clutching the last letter my son sent me. My wife, my son and infant daughter, my home town and continent—I left it all behind.
They don’t tell you about this in the books of heroes and myths. It’s different once you feel the weight of the lonely journey yourself, and all that you have to sacrifice for it.
The valley wind picked at the letter in my hand, and I brought it up before my eyes and read it again; how many times now? A goodbye not wanting to be a goodbye, tinged with bitterness and words stitched together with sorrow. My son couldn’t understand why I did it. No one back home really could.
The beginning of the greatest mountain range on the planet stood before me. All I had to do was follow the correct path to Ter’sir, the Hidden city, but the demigoddess remained silent. I heard not a word from her as soon as I placed my first step onto her supposed land of birth. I desperately wanted to hear her voice, to hear her praise my journey and the sacrifices I had to make. Instead, I heard nothing.
Was I mad to have left my family? It was at that moment I started to lose faith in the journey, and even in the demigoddess herself.
The Valley stretched out before me. One didn’t need to count to see how it earned its namesake. Countless footpaths snaked around cracked boulders, and from where I stood they looked as if they fell out of some giant’s pocket an eon ago and littered the landscape. The paths climbed up hills and crossed each other to etch long, pale scars as far as the eye could see, probably all the way to the jagged, snowcapped mountains in the distance. I saw how a number of the paths ended suddenly or led to dead ends sandwiched between nearby hills. Hundreds of false paths, and if the legend was true, only one would correctly lead to the Hidden City.
Frankly, I had no idea what to do. Decades had gone by hearing the demigoddess first whisper to me in my youth to embark on this journey, and I did everything to arrive precisely where I was. Yet, when I looked at the rocky hills all around, rolling towards the grey sky, I kept imagining the look on my son’s face the day before I left. It seemed he only realized what it meant for me to go away on that very day, and all other days were just pretend. That was over three years ago.
The wind picked up, and I knew rain wasn’t too far away. I looked at the letter in my hands—half of it from my son Stewart, the other half from my wife. And Lucie, my daughter, was still too young to write, but old enough to understand the words I wrote back. When I stayed on the border in the neighbouring Ersidon, the so-called land of rebel sorcerers, I wrote letters to home. I told my family in my last letter not to write anymore, but they did so anyway, and the letter I had in my hand arrived just as I was leaving the inn and heading into the unknown land of Borion where the Valley was supposed to be.
Please come home. I promise I’ll be good if you do…”
I had believed with every fiber of my being that I would find the Hidden City. I remember the last letter I wrote home; there was no force on the planet that could shake my conviction.
Rain started to trickle, then pour the valley with desperately needed water. There was no hiding from this storm.
My conviction slid away from my bones and melted into the ground. I had wanted to see the City with my own eyes, but there was no more map, no more guidance. I thought about exploring every single path, and perhaps I’d find the entrance eventually. The legend said the true path often changes, and all others shift, and each journey is unique. Perhaps I’d be searching for the true path for the rest of my life.
I felt crushingly alone in that Valley. No one in sight for thousands of paces. The rain continued to cover the Valley and infuse me with a chill as I stood there, drenched, unable to make a decision. Ever since I began, I could rely on the demigoddess to speak with me every day. After half a season of silence, the loneliness became crushing. Even the horrific ordeal of crossing the Atra Desert felt far easier to endure with the demigoddess reassuring me during my darkest days. Perhaps I could return to my family; perhaps they could still welcome me back.
I rolled up the wet letter and put it inside my soaking garb. For some strange reason, I sat down on the wet valley floor and did nothing. I could have returned home, or gone forward, but in that instant, I did neither. I wanted both. I wanted nothing at all.
The day went by, and the rain eventually stopped. The cold crept in and any warmth I had left was sapped right into the ground. I sat, sometimes still, sometimes shivering, paralyzed by choice. As I looked at the paths in front of me, I thought I could make out figures out in the distance, hiding in the shadows of twilight. Or perhaps they were simply shadows themselves, my mind warping them to give me hope that all was not in vain.
The cold shook me violently by nightfall. The wind picked up and blew harder than during the day. There was nothing to make a fire with, no trees in sight and all the shrubs were now soaked with the day’s rain. I remained sitting on the cold ground and looked out onto the branching paths. Should I have just gone and picked any at random? There was no way of telling which path was true without the aid of the demigoddess. I thought about turning back, and attempt to find the path again in the future, when I knew more about the Valley without the demigoddess, and had enough supplies to last. I have no idea why I thought that I, a stranger to these lands, could somehow discover the location of the Hidden City on my own and simply come and show the world what adventurers and philosophers, theologians and kings argued about since history began. It was a sleepless night.
At dawn, I slowly stood up, and turned around. I took out the letter again.
“Dear Kennin,” my wife wrote after my son’s message. “I know there’s nothing I can write or do to make you turn around, especially after your last letter. Just know I still love you. Stewart and Lucie miss you. They’re growing up so fast…”
What will they think when I return from my failed journey? What if the demigoddess speaks to me again as soon as I’m back home?
My numb fingers loosened their hold on the letter, and the wind plucked it from my hand and carried it away deeper towards the Valley. Although I had read the letter countless times, panic set in instantly. I spun around and sprinted towards the flying letter. I felt my body awaken with heat, the numbness cracked apart like a shell. As soon as I grabbed the letter, I felt all the hairs on my body stand on end. Everything became eerily silent. My breathing slowed, as did my heart, and I thought time stood still at that moment. I heard her voice. I heard her call my name.
There are times in life when you hear something so beautiful you forget about the entire world except the sound you’re hearing. You stop breathing, you stop moving, and you listen, entirely captured by the sound. I was frozen in place as I heard the first words from the demigoddess in three seasons. I closed my eyes and wept.
You’re on the right path, she told me. Keep going, she urged.
What else could I do except follow her voice?
Her city was near, she said. As I kept following the path in front of me, her voice became stronger, louder. Soon the sound of her voice eclipsed all other sounds of the world around me. Each word was intoxicating, clouding my mind with only the thought of completing my journey and finding the historic birthplace of the demigoddess.
The path led up to one of the many peaks in the Valley. It didn’t feel as if I was moving anymore; my legs felt weightless, and my body pulled along as if by strings. Soon, the path led around the hill to the other side, where it ended in darkness. A cave. Was this what I was looking for all these seasons?
As I approached it, I slowed my steps. I felt uneasy going in. I had no idea what would await me inside. Even the demigoddess now hushed herself inside my mind to a barely-audible whisper. I kept going until I was consumed by darkness, and could see nothing.
This was a problem that I could at least solve. Although I had no more food or water, I had a single small torch left in my pack. I tried to light one of them with my flint and steel, but I couldn’t produce any sparks. Or, I thought I didn’t produce any. I heard the torch burst into flames, but I didn’t see any light. I could feel the warmth radiating near my hand; I even brought the torch close to my face until I could feel the heat on my face, but I saw nothing. The initial unease I felt going in became much stronger.
Frustrated by the torch, I tossed it and kept going. I took a moment to collect myself and my thoughts. Damned if I couldn’t see anything, I knew I was close to the answer I had been searching for. The City had to be all around me. I kept going until I bumped into something. I followed the shape of it with my hand, and it was something unnatural. The rock had smooth, perfect edges, and lines or grooves carved into it. I walked a few steps with arms outstretched until I touched something else. Once again, another complicated shape, carved higher than my arm could reach. It must have been a large room judging by the deeper echo from the sound of my footsteps.
I wish I could have seen it. I stumbled upon more pillars, or perhaps they were sculptures or decorations, I had no idea.
But to the touch, it was marvellous.
This was it. The Hidden City, the birthplace of the demigoddess, carved inside of a mountain. I don’t know how much time I spent there, but without any light, I grew worried I may never come out if I ventured deeper into the City. Next time, I promised myself I would bring rope to guide me back to the entrance, and then I’d be able to explore it all.
I had to tell the world. Without a moment to spare, I traced myself back along a wall until I felt the familiar breeze and smell of the Valley. Something was wrong—did I spend all day in the cave?—for it was night at the end of the cave. Even as I stepped out into the world, it was darker than night. With my eyes wide open, I looked around but only saw black. I panicked. I couldn’t see where I was going, but I ran, yelling out to anyone who might have seen or heard me. I shouted and screamed until my throat felt like sandpaper. The last thing I remember is falling, tumbling, and pain ravaging my body. I don’t remember stopping; I must have lost consciousness during the ordeal.
And that’s when you found me, fallen wayside near your sacred mountains.
If it were not for your kindness, I would not be alive to tell you my story. What made you take me in—a bruised, blinded man—and nurse my wounds when I have nothing to give back to you?
The demigoddess has not whispered to me since the day I entered her city. When I tried to lead you back to the cave yesterday, to show you my journey was real, the paths I remembered must have shifted. Even if we did find the cave, whatever curse blinded me in there would have surely blinded you the same. If the paths did indeed shift, then I fear I will never find the city ever again. I came all this way, and all I know now is that no one could possibly believe me.
Do you still believe me? I must sound like a foolish blind man who’s too fond of the myths and stories of old, with nothing to show. To the world, the mystery of the ages remains unsolved.
And yet, I was there. I have no doubt in my mind.
The Hidden City is the most beautiful city you’ll never see.