Standing at the third-floor entrance to one of the Mage Tower’s many elevator lifts, Choke was yet again disturbed by something that his guide, Petar, did not even seem to notice. As with the elevator entrance on the first floor, there was no door or barrier there. On the first story this had not presented itself as a problem, since they had just walked onto the floor platform without thinking. However, here on the third floor, the platform that had brought them was no longer there. Standing at the open entrance, looking into the open well over a three-story drop, Choke understandably hesitated.
“Uhhhh…” he said.
“Ah. Don’t worry, sir. The elevator will have sensed our desire for it, so to speak, and will be here shortly,” Petar said.
“And what’s stopping someone just walking out there and falling?” Choke asked.
“A wall of force, of course. You can try. Here, try to put your hand into the well. Actually, it’s a perfect chance for you to feel an active wall of force. I should have thought of it myself. Here, look, it’s perfectly harmless.”
Petar put his hand out like a mime and pressed it against an invisible barrier at the elevator well’s entranceway. Unlike a mime, his palm visibly compressed. Choke tried it too. The wall of force barrier was perfectly smooth and utterly hard. Even the glass in the Pekot school’s library windows had not felt thus.
True to Petar’s word, the levitating floor platform soon joined them: dropping down to them from above. It was pushing a good amount of air before it, which created a strong breeze out of the well to herald its arrival. This startled Choke, who just managed to maintain his composure.
“Second floor, please,” Petar said, once he and Choke were centered on the elevator platform.
On the second floor, Petar led the way to the Mage Tower’s public library. It was very large. To the right of the entrance was the counter, where librarians were ready to check books out for guild members. To the left was an open area with plenty of overstuffed easy chairs and sofas in comfortable arrangements. Further back there were huge, gorgeous, oak tables with cushioned chairs and light-globed reading lamps. Then there were the stacks.
On and on, endlessly it seemed to Choke, were rows and rows of bookshelves. Every one almost floor to ceiling, and all filled with books. Choke had never imagined there could be so many books in the whole world. He almost wept.
“Quite something, isn’t it?” Petar whispered in his ear. “Now, as to the protocols. You may browse freely, or inquire after specific books or authors at the front counter. The books are arranged according to the Mordenkainen decimal system, and there is a card catalogue over there. If you take a book out of the stacks, you must not return it yourself. Just leave it on a book trolly or a table and a librarian shall put it away. That is their duty.”
“I can just look around and read anything I want?” Choke whispered.
“Indeed you can, sir. This is our public library. Open Monday through Saturday, ten AM through five PM. You are most welcome. However, as I said before, I must accompany you wherever you go. But, and I cannot stress this enough, I, or any other first-year on this duty, will be most happy to do so. Spending time in the library really is the perk of public interface duty. As well, please do be aware, sir, that the librarians may also follow you around and keep a close watch. Please take no offense to this. It is just their way,” Petar finished.
“Wow. Well, thank you. I don’t know where to start. Can we just—”
Choke interrupted himself with a wince as a spasm of pain lanced through his bowels.
“Are you alright, sir?” Petar asked, looking genuinely concerned.
“Yes, it’s nothing. Probably just— Oh. Oh no,” Choke murmured.
This time the cramp running though him quickened and he only just managed to clench his anus tight to avoid shitting himself.
“I’m sorry. Is there a toilet I can use here?” Choke asked with barely controlled panic.
“Indeed there is. Right this way.”
Petar showed Choke to the library’s men’s room and assured him he would wait outside.
In the glistening, white-tiled room with its immaculate porcelain urinals and sink basins, Choke had no idea of what to do. He had only ever experienced outhouses, chamber pots, or the great outdoors. This shimmering palace was completely beyond him. Luckily, (for he was about ready to shit into a urinal out of complete desperation) a robed man came out of one of the wooden-doored booths along the side of the room, and Choke was able to intuit what the private space was intended for. He ignored the perturbed look the man gave him as he bolted past him to claim his just vacated toilet stall. Slamming the stall door shut, Choke was now faced with a new quandary.
Looking down at the beautiful toilet bowl with its crystal-clear water, Choke for a second thought he had somehow found himself in a tiny room devoted to a mysterious fountain for one. However, the lingering smell from the stall’s previous occupant left no doubt as to what had just gone on there, and the fine-looking wooden toilet seat led Choke to the correct conclusion. In just the nick of time he was able to get himself seated for release.
With his barely digested lunch squirting out of him, Choke learned what the waitress at the Scorched Apprentice had been going on about. As spicy and painful as the chicken wings had been going into him, so too were they coming out. Each terrible spasm of diarrhea subjected Choke’s anus to another, deeper level of fiery torment. In the midst of this ordeal, he involuntarily fulfilled the waitress’s request to think of her as this was happening. Her laughing, happy face filled his mind’s eye as his asshole wept tears of liquid fire.
When it was finally over, Choke sat, utterly spent, on the toilet as waves of exhaustion and euphoria washed over him. It took him some time, but he eventually discovered the toilet paper and put it to good use. Then, he stood up to behold the horrible mess he had made. As panic rose up in him as to what to do about it, the toilet did its job. With a rush of clean water it flushed itself before some unseen force cleaned up all the smears and spatters right before Choke’s eyes.
Back in the library, Petar gave Choke a concerned look as he rejoined him.
“Are you alright, sir? You look rather… spent.”
“Yeah, I dunno. I guess. I… I mean, we, had lunch at the Scorched Apprentice. I think it was too much for me.”
“Ah, well, that explains it. The spicy chicken wings, was it? Or the red-hot pepper poppers? I hope it wasn’t both. It would be terribly irresponsible for them to serve both at once to a neophyte.”
“No. It was the chicken wings. Followed by reuben sandwiches and pan-fried potatoes. With the fishtail stout,” Choke said limply.
“Good choice, sir! That does sound good. I may have to eat there tomorrow. It’s been a while. Well, worry not, it shall not kill you. Now, I feel I must inform you, sir, that we are well past the twenty minutes you allotted for our tour today. So you probably shall need to be going.”
“Oh. Right. Thank you. Yes.”
“Not a problem, sir. It was my pleasure. You are welcome back anytime. Shall I show you out, then?”
“Thank you. Mr Cherrance, was it?”
“Yes. But, please do call me Petar, sir.”
“Okay. Well, thank you Petar. Yeah, I should get going. But thank you. This has been… something.”
“It is quite alright, sir. I understand completely. Right this way, sir, just follow me,” Petar said with his kind and gentle smile.
Walking back through Bridgetown with his asshole still aflame, Choke did his best to make some sense out of what he had just experienced. The Mage Tower with all its wonders was one thing, and heavy enough. Then there was what had happened to him in the library. Unsure as to whether the waitress had violated him in some way, Choke locked the whole episode away deep inside himself. From there, her smiling face continued to laugh at him and his poor anus.
Mannis, Dungar, Knuckle, and Pinch were standing around outside the brothel waiting for him, all looking quite pleased with themselves. Knuckle was happily chewing little pieces of meat on a long skewer from a nearby food cart.
“There you are!” Mannis said as Choke joined them. “Oh. Are ye alright? Did ye get jacked or something? Ye look fucked up.”
“No, nothing like that. I went into the Mage Tower to check it out.”
Mannis looked at Choke sharply.
“What? Ye went inside? Why in the hells would ye do that? Did they do something to ye?”
“No. They’re very friendly. It’s just… I don’t know. Too much.”
“How do ye mean? What happened?”
“Nothing! It was fine! Just all… too much, at once. Just give me a minute!” Choke barked, rubbing his face with both his hands.
“Okay, fine. Jeeze. Pardon me for being curious,” Mannis muttered. “Okay, then, so it’s the cathedral next, right? Get you young sluts right with the Lord before ye head back out into the bush to get yarselves killed.”
“Probably a good move,” Pinch said, still giving Choke a concerned look.
They all walked back down Bridgetown, past the Mage Tower, and then all the way down Merrywater Bridge to the formidable gatehouse at the end of it. It had a pair of crenulated, square towers looming over its wide gate with a drawbridge, portcullis, and huge wooden doors. The drawbridge was down and the gate fully open, but it was swarming with vigilant guards.
The city guardsmen they had been seeing up to that point had all been lightly armored and armed simply with spears, shortswords, and cudgels. The guards here were clearly of a different sort. They were all armored in chainmail, with smart looking tabards, and armed with halberds or longswords. Crossbowmen walked the upper fortifications.
As the lads crossed the drawbridge, several of the gate guards took note of them. The guardsmen did not seem alarmed, but it was clear that they were going to be having a chat. Two halberdmen stepped forward to bar their way, as a portly giant in sergeant’s stripes addressed them from behind.
“Halt, in the name of the King. State yar business here,” the sergeant barked, his harsh gaze sweeping over all of them to settle on Choke with a look of clear malevolence.
“Certainly, sir,” Mannis said, giving the sergeant a slight bow. “I am Mannis, of Dunlop, bastard to Count Vallent of the same. This is Dungar, my fellow bastard of another mother, who has been summoned to join the Brothers of the Holy Stone at the academy in Goettingen. These lads are all his fellow graduates of the Brothers’ orphanage school in Pekot. They have all been invited to join Brother Barrelmender in Spaggot. Good Stronians all, I assure ye.”
“Very well. So state yar business, sir,” the sergeant said, his bearing shifting from potentially hostile to merely officious.
“We seek a pilgrimage to the great Cathedral, sir. As I said: we are good Stronians,” said Mannis with an unassuming smile.
“So, pilgrims are ye? Ye smell a bit thick of perfume and cunny for that, I’d say. Did ye take holy vows of pilgrimage in a church at the start of yar journey?”
Mannis’ smile faded. “No, sir. We did not. We simply—”
“So pilgrims ye aint. Are ye? Yar country thugs come to swill in Bridgetown and then wipe some of that sin from yar souls at the Cathedral. Isn’t that right?”
“I suppose, in a manner of speaking, yes it is,” Mannis conceded.
“Right. You,” the sergeant slid his heavy cudgel from his belt to stab it at Choke. “What is yar name?”
Choke reflexively stiffened to attention:
“Bartholomew. Really. And yar a graduate of a Holy Stoner school, are ye?”
“I’ve served at the frontier, ye know. I’ve seen what ye jink horsefuckers do to our folk out there. What d’ye say to that?”
“I understand your feelings in regards to Scythans, sir. I assure you: I share them. I was taken in by the Brothers before the age of three and have only known their tutelage and care, sir. I am not as my people,” Choke said, meeting the sergeant’s eye squarely.
“Aren’t ye? Okay then, ye say ye’ve been educated by the Brothers. So tell, me: what was it that Stron said of the Othoq to Saint Bartholomew?”
“He said, ‘Go now, my brother, to the land of the Othoq, and bring our father’s holy, cleansing fire to them. And know that these are not men ye seek to judge, but serpents. Serpents in the guise of men, who harbor the sins of the Devil within their very flesh, and further his will with their every word and deed. Go, brother, and cleanse their flesh with sword and fire.’”
The sergeant stared at Choke for a long while then. Finally, he nodded curtly.
“Very well. Ye may pass. But take heed: a lord’s bastards or not, the eastside is not for you. Ye go to the Cathedral, ye pay yar respects, and ye leave. If these three,” the sergeant pointed with his cudgel at Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch in turn, “do not pass under my gaze within the next two hours, heading that way,” he stabbed down the bridge towards the Mage Tower, “then know this: I will personally come to round all of ye up. And then we will have more than words. In private, like.”
The sergeant finished his directive staring hard at Choke, who nodded in understanding. Then the sergeant motioned for his men to step aside.
The Cathedral of Saint Bethlam was just as cathedrals always are: awe-inspiring in its grandeur and a deeply moving experience for the faithful. All the young men were strongly affected as they prayed at the altar and in various alcoves to various saints before taking confession with a priest.
The priests at the cathedral wore different holy symbols than the Pekot lads and the Brothers of the Holy Stone, who all bore the Wheel of Stron. These priests wore golden suns around their necks upon golden chains, signaling that they worshiped Altas the Sun Himself: the creator of the world of Aern and all good in it. The clerics within the Brothers of the Holy Stone, and other militant orders like them, worshiped Altas’ human son, Stron. That a self-declared monotheistic faith would simultaneously worship two deities, as well as a multitude of lesser saints, did not strike any of the faithful as inconsistent. In the acceptance of this illogical dichotomy of their religion, all further leaps of faith became mere steps.
It took just over an hour for them to finish at the cathedral. Choke felt that he could spend the whole day there in prayer, but knew that was not an option. Walking back to the Merrywater Bridge gatehouse was a lighthearted stroll for the five unburdened souls. Knuckle was particularly pleased.
“Shit, Mannis, I think yar right about the fuckin!” he exclaimed.
“How is that?”
“Well, in confession, I told the priest everything I done since leaving the school. And alls he did was give me one act of contrition and fifty ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Vengeful Strons.’ That aint shit! The Brothers gave me more than that every week just for jerking off!”
“What did I tell you? You are warriors now and the Church does not fuss over its warriors scratching their itches,” Mannis said.
They all walked in silence for a while more until Mannis again spoke, this time addressing Choke:
“And Bartholomew, ye think on this, too. Here we walk together now, clean in the eyes of Altas, all. And yar the only one here that didn’t get his end wet on this trip. Ye think on that for the next time ye chose to deny yarself some of the simple pleasures that Altas himself put in this world for us to enjoy. Ye think on it. Every piece of iron needs to be oiled from time to time, or else it’s gonna rust and break. Don’t spare the oil for yarself, lad. That’s all I’m saying,”
Choke did indeed think on this as they all walked together back to the Merrywater Bridge to pass under the gaze of the watchful sergeant.
Mannis took them to a tavern across from the dockyards on the northside where they could have a few drinks and dinner before he and Dungar were to catch their barge that night. There, he and the other lads grilled Choke about his excursion into the mage tower. The visit to the cathedral had settled Choke down, so he was happy enough to get into it. Telling them all about it helped him make some kind of sense of it himself.
Over the course of the evening, Dungar, Pinch, and Mannis all had to make panicked flights to the toilet for what Mannis referred to as round two with the chicken wings. Only Knuckle was unaffected by it. He enjoyed himself at their expense as they yowled about their burning assholes.
“Well, just ye wait, Knuckle. Yar turn is coming. Whether ye get the trots or not, it’s coming outta ye sooner or later. And then ye’ll see,” Mannis said.
“So ye already went through all this at the mage tower and ye didn’t warn us?” Pinch said to Choke.
“No. I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. He didn’t say anything either,” Choke gestured to Mannis, who laughed.
“Exactly right!” Mannis exclaimed happily.
“But I coulda shit myself when I was with the hoor!” Pinch exclaimed.
Mannis and the others laughed even harder at this.
“And wouldn’t that be a tale to tell yar grandkids!” Mannis said.
“Man, this is fucked up, I know. But I feel great now! It’s like that tingling in my head from before but through my whole body,” said Dungar.
“I know. It is good, once the pain of it starts to pass. It’s like some kind of drug,” Mannis said.
At about nine o’clock, Mannis paid their tab and they left the tavern. Outside in the street, they had a fairly clear night view of the Mage Tower and Bridgetown across the Olga River. The tower was a dark silhouette against the sky, but Bridgetown was lit up in a riot of color. Bright, magical lights in all the colors of the rainbow strobe, roiled, and flared from the signs and roofs of Bridgetown’s dens of vice. Their effect was enhanced by their reflection across the water.
“Woah. Holy shit!” Knuckle said.
“Oh, yes, it is something,” Mannis said. “Just you boys remember what I said about the place.”
The five of them then walked to the docks to find Mannis and Dungar’s barge. Once they had, there were handshakes and thumping hugs all around as they said their goodbyes.
“Well, this is it, then. I’m off to Goettingen,” Dungar said to the three other Pekot lads.
“Yes. And you are going to make a fine Brother of the Holy Stone. Do us proud, Baron,” Choke said.
“Fuckin rights! Fuckin rights,” Knuckle said, accosting Dungar with another violent hug.
“Alright, then. Goodbye, lads,” Mannis said. “Good luck to ye. And once yar all settled in with Barrelmender, ye can count me as a friend. Look me up anytime.”
“Thank you, sir. Likewise,” Choke said as Knuckle and Pinch nodded emphatically behind him.
They all shook hands once more, with Mannis making a point to treat Choke as the senior member of the Pekot trio. Then, not wanting to risk things getting any more emotional than they already had, they quickly parted ways. Out on the street, Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch stopped to figure out what to do next.
“Okay, how much money do we got?” Knuckle asked Pinch, who was holding their collective purse.
“Oh, shit! We forgot to pay out Baron his share of the goblins!” Pinch said, whirling back towards the docks, clearly of a mind to run back to the barge to settle accounts.
Knuckle grabbed his shoulder and spun him back.
“No, we didn’t. Baron don’t get a share of this. He’s the one that scored a meal ticket for life on account of one of his noble daddy’s pump and dumps. We’re the ones out here finding our own way in the world, and he don’t get a fuckin cut of that. Right?” Knuckle said, looking at Choke with his final question.
“Yes, I think that is so. It’s not like it’s a lot, anyways,” Choke said. “So, how much is it?”
“Well, we don’t want to pull it out and count it here on the street. But Brother Willem gave us forty copper. Then there’s the bounty on the gobos we killed. Sixteen gobos, so thirty-four ears at ten coppers apiece. So, three hundred forty. Then a little bit leftover from Sir Gareth’s quartermaster, but that wasn’t much. So we got just shy of four hundred copper,” Pinch said.
“That’s fine,” Choke said. “Four silver will go a long way in the country. But here? What did Mannis pay for us to stay in the common room of that inn last night. I think that’s the cheapest we’ll find in town.”
“That was twenty copper a head to sleep. Then food and ale, so about fifty, all told. Each,” Pinch answered.
“Well, we won’t be drinking like we were. That’s a given. So, say about forty each, that’s still a hundred and twenty just for tonight,” Choke said with a wince.
“Yeah, so? That still leaves us…” Knuckle’s brow furrowed as he struggled with the figures. “I dunno. A lot! And, like ye said, once we get into the country it’ll be cheap again.”
“Okay… Just what is it you’re thinking, Knuckle?” Choke asked cautiously.
“Well, the horses are stabled till tomorrow morning, right? So we gotta stay here tonight, cause the stable’s probably closed now and we won’t wanna try to find our way of town in the dark anyways.”
“Yes, that is what we are discussing,” Choke said patiently.
“So, why fuckin pay to sleep is alls I’m saying? Let’s just go to Bridgetown and pull an all-nighter. I mean, with that fuckin lightshow, it’s obvious the place aint gonna shut down overnight, right?”
“No. Listen, we are not going to another whorehouse. There is no way—” Choke started.
“I’m not saying that we go get hoors! That’s what, half an hour a pop? I know we can’t afford that. But why not just go wander around, stop at a cheap bar, have a few drinks, then wander around some more, and just repeat that all night. I mean, the ale can’ t be that much everywhere, right? And then we ride out at dawn and stop early at a roadhouse out in the country,’ Knuckle said, his face cracking into a proud grin as he reached his conclusion.
“Actually,” Pinch interjected. “That’s not a bad idea at all. If we take it easy drinking, it’s not going cost any more than crashing in a common room. And even if it does, a bit, we’ll still have had a great time. I mean, it would be foolish not to properly experience this place while we’re here and have the opportunity. Right?”
Choke scowled at Pinch and Knuckle both.
“Listen, we’re not talking about fuckin!” Knuckle exclaimed. “We just wander around and have some drinks. What’s the harm of that?” Knuckle said.
“You heard what Mannis said about the place. Nothing is free there.”
“Well no doubt. We’ll be buying the fuckin beer. And then we just gotta be careful not to get snared into any bullshit. I mean look at us,” Knuckle laughed. “Who’s gonna try and fuck with us? Come on!”
“He has a point, Choke,” Pinch said.
With the two young men staring at him like children waiting for their mother to approve a normally forbidden snack, Choke realized that without really even trying, he was now their leader. Knuckle was stronger than Pinch and him put together, and Pinch was holding their money, but the both of them were looking to him for permission to execute their plan. He also knew that if he refused them now they would be sullen about it and blame him for spoiling their one night in Strana. Finally, he also really wanted to go and experience Bridgetown at night.
“Okay, fine,” Choke finally said. “But give me the purse. Here, let’s get out of the street.”
Knuckle and Pinch both babbled excitedly as they all went to stand just inside the entrance of an empty alley. Choke opened the purse and counted out each of them fifty copper worth of coins in various small denominations to put in their pockets. Then he hoisted up his chainmail and doublet in front and tied the purse down to his inner breeches’ belt.
“Okay. So we’ve each got fifty copper. That’s what we have for tonight. That’s it. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Understood?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“And as far as anyone else in this town is concerned, that’s all the money we have in this world. Right?” Choke said.
“For sure. Good call,” Pinch said.
The three walked back over the beautifully arched Olga Bridge, down its looping ramp around the Mage Tower, and through the market square to head back into the lightshow of Bridgetown.