The Children of Stron – part 10

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 9

Mannis paid their tab at The Scorched Apprentice, which was not light, and tipped their waitress handsomely. Their lunch had cost him as much as the last two nights at the inns combined. Mannis waved off their thanks dismissively.

“Just thank Mr Maythorn for his generosity if ever ye meet,” he said. Then he paused. “No. On second thought, do not do that. Bad idea.”

“So, what now?” Knuckle asked eagerly.

“Well… that is the question. Our barge leaves here at ten o’clock tonight. So we need to strike out for the docks no later than nine. That gives us about six hours,” Mannis said.

“So? Where to next?” Knuckle pushed.

“The Cathedral,” Choke said with great conviction. “We should visit the Cathedral of Saint Bethlam and pray.”

“Oh, for fuck—” Knuckle started, before remembering himself and shutting up sharply.

“Actually, do you know what, Bartholomew?” Mannis said, clapping Choke on the shoulder. “I think that is exactly what we should do! Great idea!”

“Really?” Choke asked.

“Indeed! Indeed. My luck has been fabulous since ye boys came on, and I don’t want to mess it up. So if ye say a bit of church time is in order, Bartholomew, then I’m with ye. Lead the way!”

“Well, okay then. Thank you,” Choke said, clearly flummoxed.

“Okay, listen boys,” Mannis said, turning to Dungar, Knuckle, and Pinch. “We’re doing the cathedral. And I know yar all eager to get into something sinful, and don’t worry. I will see ye put right in that regard today, should ye want it.”

“Fuckin rights I do!” Knuckle exclaimed. He then turned to Choke. “And don’t ye fuckin dare try to fuck it up for us! Ye heard what the man said about the Church and fuckin. We’ll do confession and all that once we get to a priest, but this is Bridgetown. Please.”

“Okay, okay. Whatever,” Choke muttered.

“Well, there we have it. We can fit both in,” Mannis said. “But perhaps we should rethink the order of things. It would probably be better for ye to get the whoring out of the way before the cathedral. Then ye can take confession and do yar penance and ride outta town with a clean slate. Right?”

Choke and the others nodded at the good sense of this.

“Okay, then, so here’s the deal,” Mannis said. “I’ll treat ye to a Bridgetown dip of yar wicks, but let’s get one thing straight: I’m not paying for a full tour. We’ll be going down to the west end of the bridge.”

Mannis gestured that way and they all started ambling back along Merrywater Bridge towards the Mage Tower. He went on:

“And keep in mind these are not like country hoors, where they have time to hang out and let ye do basically as ye please for a reasonable price. Here ye pay by the sex act and by the half-hour, whichever one ends first. Since ye lads have been so agreeable, I will pay for one half hour and let ye have a half-and-half if ye want. It’s a little more, but ye’ve earned it.”

“A half-and-half? Pinch asked.

“Yes. She starts ye with her mouth and finishes ye with normal fucking. And no ass fucking. I’m not paying for that.”

“That is more than generous, sir. We appreciate it!” Pinch said, tugging on his forelock.

Knuckle emphatically agreed.

They walked back through the Mage Tower market square and down the widest lane of Bridgetown. It was crowded with punters, touts, goons, whores, beggars, peddlers, food carts, street performers, and city guardsmen. Colorful women beckoned from door and alleyways, and the windows and balconies above. It was the liveliest scene the Pekot boys had ever seen.

“Mind yar purses here. Rife with pickpockets,” Mannis said. “And while I’m schooling ye, I may as well do it properly. Regardless of what anyone says, nothing is ever free here, least of all human kindness. And it doesn’t matter what yar buying, always negotiate exactly what ye want and the price for it beforehand. Then, afterwards, tip for good service, particularly if ye want to come back. And, whatever ye do, don’t gamble.”

“That is all sound advice for life in general, isn’t it?” Choke said.

“That it is, actually. That it is,” Mannis chuckled.

The whorehouse that Mannis took them to was on the low side of things, but it was in Bridgetown and still on a whole other level than their previous foray into harlotry. Pinch and Knuckle were clearly excited by the women on offer in the simple lounge.

“So who is in?” Mannis asked. “Bartholomew? We can’t tempt ye here, can we? No, I thought not. Brother?”

Dungar looked deeply uncomfortable as Mannis, and then everyone else, directed their focus on him.

“I don’t know…” he started.

“Oh no, oh no! Do not tell me that yar wanting to stay true to young Clara! After all she didn’t do for ye. That is it, isn’t it?” Mannis laughed, looking close at his brother. “I am afraid I cannot let ye do that to yarself, Dungar. Ye had something of a time together, this is true. But she is not for you. It’s impossible, for a multitude of reasons. Put her away into yar spank bank and be done with her.”

Mannis turned to the madame of the establishment, who was waiting not-so-patiently for them to sort themselves out.

“Mistress, if I could beg your indulgence. My brother here is just free of his first romantic entanglement after a whole life being locked up with the bloody-minded monks. We must set him right, or he may be ruined forever. Could you please set him up with yar best blowjob artist? One half hour. And there will be a fine tip in it for her if she can draw it out for the full thirty minutes.”

“More than just the tip, I’m hoping!” Pinch said. This generated a good laugh.

Mannis turned back to Dungar:

“Now, ye go with the nice lady and enjoy yarself. If it makes it any easier, ye can close yar eyes and pretend it’s young Clara working on ye. Trust me, this is just what ye need.”

Dungar allowed himself to be led off by the woman that the madame presented to him.

“All right, ye two, take yar pick,” Mannis said to Knuckle and Pinch while gesturing to the remaining women. “A half-and-half, I suppose?”

Both the lads nodded.

“Okay, then: the one blowjob and two half-and-halfs,” Mannis said to the madame as he pulled out his purse.

“What, yar not gonna fuck too?” Knuckle asked him.

“No. No. I got off with Anise twice yesterday and twice this morning, so I’m quite sorted. And, as I told ye before, I try not to pay for it if I can help it these days. Ye go and enjoy yarself. I shall wait for ye down here,” Mannis said. Then he turned to the madame: “You don’t serve coffee by any chance do you?”

“We do. So two coffees?” she asked, glancing over at Choke.

“What’s coffee?” Choke asked.

“It’s like stugroot, only good. It’s from Alquinia,” Mannis answered.

“Alquinia? Then, no. I will not try it. I think I’ll take a walk back to the Mage Tower and check it out. They’ll be at it for a half hour here, you say?” Choke said.

“At the most. Okay, then, meet us outside and we’ll head to the cathedral next. And remember what I said: there’s nothing free on this strip, so take care not to get snared.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Okay, so one coffee it is!” Mannis said to the madame, taking a seat in the lounge as Choke left.

***

Choke made it to the Mage Tower without incident. A good number of people pestered him, but being a well-armed Scythan with an iron Stronian Wheel around his neck, they did not push it.

At the entrance of the Mage Tower, Choke stood and gaped up at its dizzying heights while he worked up the courage to go inside. Finally, with an attitude like he was sneaking into a lion’s den, Choke walked quickly through the great entrance and into the large foyer within.

The round foyer was polished marble splendor, with floors of complicated fractal patterns in multicolored stone and lovely vaulted ceilings. It was well lit, too. The lighting was provided by magical lightglobes: perfect spheres of metal that produced full-spectrum, adjustable light. These were hovering in midair up in the middle of the ceiling vaults, or hidden within recesses in the walls and ceilings.

Along the outside wall to the left and right of the entrance were wide corridors curving away out of sight. In the foyer walls to the left and right, between each corridor and the wide entrance to the atrium area, were four large recesses between supporting pillars. Standing in these alcoves were three-meter humanoid, iron statues. The statues alternated between thick-framed, armored warriors in closed helms, and fearsome gargoyle-looking demons. As Choke was looking them over, they all moved simultaneously, shifting their poses from one fighting stance to another. As they did, a low, heavy, growling sound of well-lubricated, solid iron pieces articulating against each other filled the foyer.

With a clenching in his bowels, Choke realized he was surrounded by eight iron golems.

“May I help you, sir?” a pleasant looking little fellow in mouse-grey robes asked Choke.

“What?”

“May I help you, sir?” the young man repeated, no less pleasantly.

“Oh, sorry. I don’t know. I just thought I’d come in and take a look around, if that’s okay. If it’s not, I’m more than happy to leave,” Choke said hurriedly, his gaze still jumping all over the room from one golem to the next.

“No, it is quite alright. I can show you around our public spaces, if you wish. My name is Petar Cherrance. May I ask yours, sir?”

“Bartholomew. Just Bartholomew. From Pekot.”

“Very good, sir. Before we may proceed, you shall just have to check your weapons. Follow me, please.”

With a friendly smile, Petar beckoned for Choke to follow him as he walked towards the atrium. With no better idea of what to do, Choke did so. The foyer and atrium were not crowded, but there were a number of robed men and women going about their business. They spared Choke little more than a glance.

Through the foyer was another chamber of sorts with a wide opening into the atrium. To either side was a broad corridor around the huge inner atrium. The corridor was open on its inner side, with elegant columns every four meters and marble benches between them. In the wall to their left was a large reception desk and to the right side was a smaller booth window. Petar led him to that and gestured at a similarly robed young woman behind the counter.

“Please check all of your weapons here, sir. You shall be able to retrieve them when you leave. Thank you.”

Choke unbuckled his weaponbelt and set it with his longsword and dagger on the counter. Then he hesitated just a second before drawing his boot knife and setting it down next to them.

“Thank you, sir,” the young woman said before taking them away.

“Very good, sir,” Petar said. “Now, what would you like to see? Of course, the atrium is popular. As are the balcony gardens above it. Then, the public reading library is an option as well.”

“You have a public library? Really?”

“Of course, sir. It is not a lending library, naturally, and contains no magical volumes. It is an extensive collection, though. Open to the public between ten in the morning and five in the afternoon. Of course, I shall be required to accompany you for the duration of the visit, but I am more than happy to study alongside you if you choose to read in the library.”

“You don’t have anything better to do?” Choke asked.

Petar laughed. “No, I do not. I am on duty. If I was not with you, then I would be standing around waiting for another visitor. All first-year students are required to work for the Guild. It is a rotation. Today I am on public interface. Reading in the library is a marvelous way to spend a shift.”

“Well, that sounds great. But, unfortunately, I only have twenty minutes. So if we could just check out the atrium and then see the library, that would be wonderful.”

“Of course, sir.”

Choke and Petar walked together out into the beautiful atrium garden. As it had seemed from looking in from outside the tower, it was huge. A perfect circle, the atrium was easily two-hundred meters across. It was entirely surrounded by the pillared corridor. Above that were several stories of similarily pillared balconies with railings, all with planter boxes housing flowers, fruits, vegetables, and a multitude of other plants both large and small.

Looking up further to the blue, sunny sky above the balconies, and forgetting for a moment that he was meant to be standing in the middle of the tower, Choke expected to see some kind of roof capping them. Instead, there was the base of another balcony story which faded out of sight within a couple of meters, giving way to blue sky as though it were some kind of painting an artist had not bothered to finish.

“What? How?” Choke babbled, actually swaying on his feet as a wave of vertigo struck him.

“Yes. It is something. Please, have a seat, sir.”

Petar helped Choke to a bench under a lovely apple tree.

“What is this? How?” Choke finally managed after some time.

“Yes, well, that is a complicated answer, sir. But I shall do my best for you,” Petar said. “Would you like an apple, sir?”

“What?”

“An apple. Would you like one? They are very delicious.”

“Okay, then. Thank you.” Choke took the big, red apple that Petar plucked from the tree and bit into it. It was delicious.

“Now, sir. About all this. We are indeed still inside the tower. And to answer the question that people inevitably have: Yes, the inside of the tower is bigger than the outside. In fact, just the atrium itself is larger than the external base of the tower.”

“But… how?”

“I, of course, mean no disrespect here, but that may be hard to comprehend, sir. I do not know how much magical education you have received. But, simply put, the inside of the tower is bigger than its outside because within the tower is an extradimensional space. Like a bag of holding, or similar container, that can hold a much greater volume than its own external dimensions. Essentially, within the tower is a parallel reality in which everything is smaller than it is outside. A kind of pocket dimension, if you will.”

“Okay… And this is the simple explanation?” Choke asked.

Petar laughed in a friendly way. “I am afraid so, yes.”

“Okay. But, how?”

“Ah. Now that is rather interesting. No single mage could ever create such a large extradimensional space. The magical power required is unfathomable. In our case, it is down to the structure of the tower itself. As tall as the tower is, in fact, underground it goes even deeper. Deep below us, the crystalline structure of the tower’s foundation harnesses the power of a convergence of leylines at this site. Leylines are channels of magical power that flow through the world. Like arteries and veins that deliver blood within our body, through leylines flows magical energy. It is this magical energy that has been harnessed to create the extradimensional space that we utilize.”

“Okay. I think I can get that. But who made the tower?”

“Oh, now, that is a mystery. It is older than this mage guild, that is for certain. As far as we can tell, it always has existed. Some think it is a natural formation, a physical manifestation of the leylines themselves, formed like a giant crystal from their own essence. Others think it is the work of a god. Still others think it was made by a group of early mages whose powers are beyond even our comprehension. It is far from settled, and we shall probably never know.”

“So, all this marble work and benches and balconies and stuff, that was all created like this?” Choke asked, looking around him skeptically.

“Ah. No. Of course not, sir. Astute of you to point it out. No, these comforts and luxuries have been built upon the base structure of the original tower. By the finest Dwarven stoneworkers, of course. Commissioned by our Guild. Of course. A very long time ago, though. So we occasionally must suffer through the inconvenience of refurbishments and renovations, of course.”

“Of course. So what’s with… that?” Choke asked, gesturing up to the fourth-story balcony disappearing into the sky.

“That is a contrivance of our Guild, to allow us the pleasure and benefits of sunshine and starry nights, if not weather. Internally, the structure of the tower is that of a tower, naturally. We are, in fact, within a massive central chamber that is, at its top, roofed. What allows us to see the sky is, essentially, an invisibility spell. Or, rather, I should say, a great number of specifically tuned invisibility spells that have been permanized.”

“Invisibility? Like the spell for assassins or spies and thieves?”

“Or the spell-like effects of many extradimensional or fey creatures. Exactly. Invisibility works as an illusion effect by recreating light in an identical vector to its source. Yes?” Petar asked patiently.

“What?”

“Think about it this way, sir. You see what you see because your eye perceives light that has been reflected off of what you see. Yes? You cannot see what is behind me because I am blocking the light being reflected from that which is behind me. Right? So, to create invisibility we must craft a spell that takes in all the light from all around, and then reproduces that which has been blocked by the object to be rendered invisible. This reproduced light is sent out from the exact opposite point on the invisible object from which it was received, and in the same direction, or vector, that the original light was heading. This creates invisibility.”

“Okay…”

“So, in the case of our tower here, we must simply cast a two-dimensional layer of unidirectional invisibility upon the inner areas to make the whole tower invisible from the inside perspective. From the outside, or any rooms within it, there is no effect. This spell has been further tuned to the perspectives of the viewers, so that whatever story you are on, looking downwards gives you the normal view of the building structures below, but when looking upwards, the building becomes invisible after three stories.”

(…)

Petar smiled benevolently at Choke’s bamboozlement.

“I am sorry, sir. I see we have reached your limit. Let’s go up to third story balcony gardens and you shall see what I mean in practical terms.”

Petar led Choke through the atrium to its encircling corridor through one of its many stepped entranceways. In the inner wall of the corridor was an open entrance to a small, square room, which Petar and Choke entered. There was no other exit; just marvelously mosaiced marble walls heading up. And up. And up.

Craning his neck back, Choke saw there was no ceiling to this room. Not ever, as far as he could tell. It seemed that they were standing at the bottom of a perfectly square well with no top. Choke looked over at Petar, who had turned around to face back the way they had come in. Petar smiled at him patiently, so Choke turned around to stand next to him.

“Third floor, please,” Petar said to the room.

Before Choke could process this, the whole floor beneath them levitated upwards, whooshing them up to the third floor. He could only just manage to avoid screaming and soiling himself.

On the third story, they stepped through the open doorway into a circular corridor very similar to the first. This one, however, had the planter boxes all over its railing and on the floor inside it. The space was lush and green with a very pleasant, tropical aroma.

“What the hell was that!” Choke yelled at Petar.

“My apologies, sir. I should have warned you. That was one of our many elevators. You wouldn’t want to take the stairs, with the number of levels we have here.”

“How many is that?”

“No one knows. Every time an accurate count is closed in upon, the tower shifts and rearranges things.”

“What? Like, how? It creates and removes whole levels?”

“It seems so, yes,” Petar said.

“Wait a minute…” Choke paused, his expression of horror deepening. “The way you’re talking about it, it’s almost like the tower is alive, or something.”

“Oh, quite. There is clearly some form of sentience within the tower. Or, rather, the magical fields that imbue it. It does not communicate directly with us, but it clearly has its own notions. It can be mischievous. As is shown by its tendency to play about with the floors.”

“So if the number of floors changes, how does this elevator thing know what floor is what? How do you?”

“An excellent question! Why Bartholomew, you are quick. It is rare a non-spellcasting visitor thinks to ask that without prompting. I suppose the answer is that the numbers of the floors are more names than any useful chronological designation. We do our best to use only those levels we have a firm grasp of, and the tower obliges us by not rearranging their order too badly. Of course there are difficulties. For example, for the last twelve years, the eighth floor has been situated between the fourteenth and fifteenth.”

“Are you serious?” Choke almost yelled.

“Yes. Quite, sir.”

“So you use this place without ever being sure where everything actually is or when it will change?”

“Well, what do ‘actually’ or ‘is’ mean, exactly? Everything is relative. Just more so within the Tower,” Petar smiled, clearly enjoying himself immensely. He went on:

“Furthermore, there are some levels we cannot even be sure the true size of. Some are quite finite and cozy. Others just keep going and going. More tunnels and rooms and chambers, on and on and on. Our Dwarven finishing work ends at some point, of course, leaving these spaces as the natural tower stone in its raw state. Quite beautiful in its way. I am afraid I cannot show it to you, though, sir. Those areas are not open to the public. Anyway, shall we?” Petar gestured to the balcony railing near them.

Looking down from the balcony was just what one might expect (which was marvelous). The two levels of balcony gardens beneath them were plainly visible, as was the whole atrium garden. All quite lovely. When looking up, the invisibility effect began three levels above where they were; giving way to clear blue sky as before. However, these levels lacked balconies, and were faced with tall and wide glass windows, many of which were open.

Choke took it all in for some time before he was ready to continue questioning Petar:

“So we’re actually inside here? And there’s a roof up top?”

“Indeed.”

“So that means there’s no rain, right? How do all these plants survive, then? Do you water them by hand?”

Petar laughed. “Of course not, sir. We are mages. None of us do labor save those who enjoy it for its own sake as recreation or exercise. You pose a good question, though. Water elementals provide us the perfect amount of nightly artificial misting and rain, for all of our plants,” Petar answered with his usual smile.

“What? You have water elementals running around loose in here?”

“Along with earth, wind, and fire. Although none of them run. And they are not loose. They are completely under our control, of course. They are quite harmless. Unless, of course, we require them to do harm. In a situation of compromised security, I mean.”

Choke took a long moment with this.

“Okay, so, water elementals water the plants,” he finally started.

“And provide us with fresh water for all our other needs, of course,” Petar interjected.

“Of course. What are the other elementals for?”

“All of our other needs. You notice the pleasant breeze here, yes? Quite cool and fresh. Air elementals provide us perfect ventilation. The water and fire elementals provide us further climate control, with humidity and heat. The earth elementals give us the soil we need to grow our plants, and help the Dwarven masons with their stonework.”

“I see. It must be nice,” Choke said.

“Oh, it is. Now, I believe, sir, that you said you only had twenty minutes and wanted to see the public library. If that is so, then we should definitely move on,” Petar said pleasantly.

“Oh, right. Thank you. Yes, let’s,” Choke said.

He took one more sweeping look over the atrium and the balconies before following Petar, who was already heading for the elevator.

read part 11

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