There are five people in the bar, including the bartender, which makes it about half full. I am sat furthest from the door, the back wall against my right shoulder, and a double of Nikka on the bar before me. The woman a few seats down has a beer in front of her, and has been playing on her phone since she sat down. Beyond her, leaning against the other wall with nothing to pour or polish at the moment, the bartender has his nose in a book. I would place the woman in her mid thirties and the bartender in his early twenties, but given the discrepancy in their chosen methods of distraction, I am not so sure. At one of the standing tables behind me two older men in suits, colleagues probably, hold a low mumbled conversation over a bottle of sake and two cups. It is a peaceful place, this, tucked away on the seventh floor of a narrow building on a small cross street. It is cozy, but not crowded; dimly lit, but not dark. I feel the vibration in my pocket around the same time as I see the woman’s eyes widen in response to something on her phone’s screen. And I don’t know what it is – really I don’t – but I know that it’s not good, so I raise my left hand to get the bartender’s attention and my right to drain my glass.
For the first two days afterwards the smoke was thick, drifting between buildings and obscuring much of anything from view. The power was out, of course. Properly out, so no cell phone towers to relay signals. A few people probably had access to battery-operated televisions or radio and could pick up signals from farther out, but only a few. More than a few went down stairs and fire escapes and out into the streets – to find family and friends, to find food, to find help for themselves or for others. They were the brave ones. But not the smart ones. They did not come back. On the second night, the rain came. A thunderous storm, like God’s wrath. Sound and fury. It signified nothing, for his wrath had already been done.
The morning came and the smoke was gone from the air above, but down below something like it remained. Reaching almost to the fourth floor, it was thick, dark and somehow angry. The city above looked like it had broken through a storm cloud – the sun was out, and here and there people were standing on balconies and terraces. There were smiles. There was relief. Those who looked out over the city, still standing, felt that everything was going to be okay. Back inside, those who stood on fourth floor landings and looked over balconies and down stairwells and stationary escalators into the cloud, just as thick indoors as it was out on the streets, were not so sure.
Dusk falls, and as the fireflies begin to blink and dance the stone lanterns lining the path are lit, one by one. The gravel has been swept clean, but the pools of light along the trail also illuminate the verge of the deep forest beyond – pine needles, leaf litter, and mushrooms clumped at the base of trees. Beyond the light the undergrowth is thick and green, and things are stirring out there. The night air is hot and heavy, and the crickets chirp and sing with abandon. At the top of the rise the trail passes a shrine gate flanked by two stone lions, the building beyond an island in the darkness as evening proper descends. We continue on, down a cliffside path to an arching red bridge lightly misted in the spray of the waterfall just upstream. This is the place. We find a comfortable spot to sit, open the bottle of sake, and wait.
The city of Aloré was built on the valley slope overlooking the shores of Lake Mehon. Its wide streets swept in gentle curves between tall delicate buildings and lush green spaces from the upper gate straddling the mountain pass all the way down to the low wall and gently lapping waves at the water’s edge. When heavy snowmelt would come off the peaks to the north and swell the lake, the wall would keep the tide from encroaching onto the lower terraces.
Of course, that was before. Before the ground shifted and the water rose.
You come gliding across the lake in a flat-bottomed boat in the pre-dawn light. The air is still, and colder than the water below, so your passage cuts through a thick fog, leaving lazy eddies in your wake. As you approach the shore you begin to pass between indistinct masses looming out of the gloom, each seemingly taller than the last. When they break above the fog they resolve themselves into roofs and balconies and towers and spires, silent and lifeless. Soon enough the fog thins and your boat bottoms out on a cobbled street rising out of the depths. Before you, even more buildings, far from lifeless. What remains of the city of Aloré is beginning to wake up.
Eventually the tunnel levels out and, rounding a bend, you begin to feel the air change. It is cooler here; wetter, and not as still. When the walls give way to a cavern you pause on the threshold and can sense the vastness of the space before you, though it is lost in the blackness beyond the circle of your torchlight. Despite the apparent impossibility, it feels like you are standing outside. So much so that a small doubt is planted in your mind. You can hear a cascade of water in the distance, and the air smells organic, like dirt and leaves. You look up, and see points of light that cannot be stars twinkling overhead. Curious, you douse your torch and wait for your eyes to adjust. More and more points of light become visible out of the dimness and here and there you spot some movement. Glow worms, probably. Casting your eyes back down, you gasp. Far from the inky blackness you expected here hundreds of feet below the surface, the cavern is filled with all manner of bioluminescence. You stand on a raised rock ledge – from there a dirt slope drops away perhaps twenty feet to where, revealed in the soft blue glow of mosses and fungi and things you couldn’t begin to identify, begins a vast forest.
“Go ahead, sweetie. I promise you won’t get in trouble.”
The girl continued to look down at her feet in silence. Beside her, holding her hand tightly, the woman’s face showed a mixture of sympathy and impatience.
“Okay I’ll start, then. She was in the gymnasium.”
The girl’s head shot up, a look of shock on her face. The older man’s face showed shock, too, but as he opened his mouth to speak the woman continued, raising her voice to speak over him.
“Which, as I’m sure you know, may well be dangerous but is certainly not illegal. So on any other day would be none of your damn business.”
The shock on the little girl’s face turned to amazement at hearing her mother swear.
The man sighed. “And so why is it my business today?”
At a nod from her mother, the girl spoke for the first time. “I saw a ghost,” she said.
There was a beat while the man tried to work out whether this was a joke then decided he didn’t care. “Well as I’m sure you can appreciate, we are all very busy at the moment,” he turned to leave.
“Peter,” the woman called after him. He paused. “I know you don’t have kids, but when was the last time you talked to someone under the age of sixteen?”
“I have more…”
“No,” she cut him off again, “you don’t. Nobody born in the last twenty years believes in ghosts anymore, there are plenty of scarier things out there now. It’s slang, Peter.”
He turned back around slowly, feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach, “Slang for what?”
“She saw a machine.”
The road skirting the northwest coast is unpleasant at this time of year. The incessant wind blowing in from the Northern Passage carries a bitter chill and up on the heath, sandwiched between the ocean on one side and low foothills on the other, there is little respite from it. There are few travellers to be seen on the road and only the occasional local, shepherding a small flock of goats or angry-looking sheep grazing on the wiry grasses or guiding a mule-driven cart to or from a neighbouring village. Even the villages themselves are rarely seen, tucked away down in coastal valleys or inlets away from the elements. They are nice places; nicer by far than the bleakness of the heath – cozy and welcoming and full of good honest folk. In warmer months you would find children playing amongst brilliant patches of wildflowers, or pass families travelling to market in the city, but right now nobody leaves the comfort and warmth of their village unless they must.
I blink three or four times. After the bright fluorescence of the convenience store, my eyes take a few seconds to adjust to the rainy midnight streets. I squint upwards to regard the raindrops where they tumble into view past the lightbox sign of a 5th-floor bar across the street. No heavier, but no lighter; set in until dawn by my estimation. I consider the bar, too. Time is running short, but a night of searching in this weather is like to bring nothing but a head cold. It is a nice thought – an hour or two on a comfortable stool hunched over a series of whiskey glasses in a warm smoky bar – but I don’t let it linger. There will be much worse than a head cold to come if I don’t find what I’m looking for. I turn up my collar, tuck in my chin against the damp, and begin to walk.
The merchant’s guild and the city council call it the Tiered Market, but to the locals it’s known simply as Hillside. The terraced path, winding back and forth across the southern face of Watch Hill, is home to all manner of stall selling everything from salt by the pound to fine silk gowns to root vegetables to exquisite glassware. It is the largest marketplace in Nandore, which makes it the largest marketplace in all of West Amria. Down at the base, many of the stalls selling food and simple necessities are open all day and all year round. At the top, among the more specialised and expensive goods, some stalls are only ever open by appointment. The tiered rows offer a magnificent view over the lower city to the docks and harbour and ocean beyond, but they are a spectacle in and of themselves as crowds flock and throng amid the colourful stalls and banners, and servants and couriers and shop boys scramble to and fro up and down the steep stone staircases between rows. In there, fortunes are being made and hearts are being won and larders are being stocked.
The gates of the Academy seem massive overhead as you pass through, but your young-looking escort swings the giant slab of stone closed behind you with no noticeable effort. The courtyard beyond is wide and green, criss-crossed with neat paths of white gravel leading to and from the numerous halls and towers arrayed before you. A few people come and go with an obvious sense of purpose, and here and there small groups are gathered in animated discussion or argument. When you finish gawping you turn back to your escort to find him waiting patiently, grinning widely.
“It’s quite something, isn’t it?” he asks as he begins to set off down one of the paths, motioning for you to follow. “You’ll get used to it eventually, I promise. I’m afraid the proper tour will have to wait, the Dean doesn’t have much time to spare today so we’re heading straight there.”
“Of course,” you nod simply, still taking it all in.
“Broad strokes, though: straight ahead is Research, which is where we’re headed. Libraries and lecture halls and theories. That’s where you’ll spend most of your time in the beginning. Off to the left is Excavation. Artifacts and maps and stories about nests of kobolds. To the right is Experimentation. Sparks and explosions and the occasional unholy creature from beyond the walls of reality. You know,” he looks back over his shoulder at you and grins again, “the fun stuff.”