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.”
No one had ever thought to give Peat a fancy name. It isn’t even a town – not really. It is an accretion. Huts and houses and two inns and a few simple shops and perhaps a hundred souls stuck to the outskirts of the fen like a boot in the mud. The well maintained overland route running east to west passes within fifty yards of the trading post, but does not turn or fork. Bare mud and dirt and the occasional rut show where people come and go, but most of the wagons that stop pull up on the road itself. Most of the residents never venture even that far onto solid ground. The boardwalks and piers and shallow-bottomed barges poled through tight, twisting waterways are their domain. The air is thick and damp here and, some days, when it is still, the fog never lifts and there are only a few hours between the pre-dawn dimness and the twilight gloaming. The muted glows of indistinct lanterns glide to and fro across the water as people go about their work, and the wagons come bearing supplies and leave bearing peat, and the world turns.
From the upper balcony of the palace, the city of Semb stretches before you. The sun is setting, casting long shadows where it catches on buildings, and shining directly into the royal terrace as it does for only a few minutes each day. The opening in the western wall of the cavern yawns wide, but from this angle only a small slice of sky can be seen above the low hills before the city and the buildings of the outer enclave. Down below the light from lanterns and torches begins to reassert itself as the sunlight slides away up the eastern wall passing over the carved windows and arches of the palace’s facade. The city is stirring again after the late afternoon lull. The crowds in the main market square are picking up, the sounds of haggling and hawking rising to echo off the cavern’s ceiling. To the right, away in the lower reaches of the northern district where the sunlight never shines, the distant staccato sounds of metal on metal or stone ring out from forges and workshops – the industry of the city will continue late into the night. Off to the left, the muted crump of a small explosion sounds from where excavation teams are working to uncover a ruined district of the old city. The last direct light of the sun slides off the terrace and you turn back towards the small group assembled there.
“Before you arrest me,” you say, “you’re going to want to hear what I have to tell you.”
The people of Amria don’t believe in druids anymore. It has been centuries since anyone claiming to be from the Sacred Isle made landfall there, so one tends not to be surprised. But the druids still believe in the people of Amria.
People are good and people are evil. It does little to delve into it any deeper than that. Evil brought down the World Tree, and risking another disaster of that magnitude was beyond even the Grand Council’s capacity for folly. Still, tending the tree was never our only calling and in order to do good in the world one must be in the world. And so, for centuries, we came and we went and we hid our origins and our purpose.
It is early afternoon, the sun just tucked away behind the eaves leaving the small balcony in shade but still radiating a low heat. Spread out below, the tiled roofs and cobbled alleys of the town reveal secrets of geography not apparent from street level. Away to the left a string of pennants snap and flutter in the fitful breeze above a small square tucked somewhere behind the great cathedral. Occasionally the cheer of a crowd can be heard. Closer to in that direction a shimmer of light plays on the sandstone wall of a courtyard; its source is hidden from view but the patterns and shapes it forms in ephemera feel oddly familiar. Off to the right the towers of the common palace rise up behind the canvas awnings of the lower marketplace. They are difficult to count from this angle, but it definitely seems like there are at least few more than can be seen from the gates of the grand square.
Those are mysteries for another day.
Directly out and down across the labyrinth of roofs and alleys there is a wide terrace fenced on two sides by thickly ivied trellis. There are a dozen tables arranged there in the space between the pond at the near end and the low roof at the far end. It is far enough that the people are unrecognisable, but near enough that you can see that people drift in and out lazily at all hours and that the place it at least half full whether in the bright sun of a clear afternoon or the soft lantern light of the early hours.
There is half a bottle of wine left, and we are in no rush. Let’s rest our feet here for a while and enjoy the view. But tonight, I know, we are going to find it.
“He could not find the World Tree,” they say in Amria. Today it suggests inevitability, a fools errand, even hubris. From the oldest to the youngest they all know the fantastical tales, but even those who believe them think it forever lost. They do not remember their history. They do not learn from it. Centuries ago, the saying meant something very different: obliviousness, stupidity, incompetence. Centuries ago you could look into the sky and there, rising above the horizon, you could see its leaves and branches.
When the Tree fell, the seas swept across the land leaving countless dead – towns were washed away and cities were left in ruin. Centuries passed. Slowly, people recovered. Slowly, people forgot. Cities were rebuilt, babies were born, and history became stories. Stories that do not know how close they came to ending.
You have been walking since dawn, your hastily-erected camp broken just as hastily as soon as the thin scraps of sky you could glimpse through the leaves began to lighten. You did not sleep the night before, not under these trees, but your legs at least feel rested and your companions seem in high spirits. In an hour or so you will be in high spirits as well, when the hard-packed dirt of the trail finally breaks free of the oppressive canopy above and begins to slope downwards towards the plains. When you can see the city walls in the distance and the wide sky above. When you can start imagining the waiting bag of gold and the first tankard of ale you will buy with it. For now, you are on high alert – every minute that has passed without incident in this place has made you warier, the last day and a half sitting heavily in the pit of your stomach. For now you watch.
It had taken her more than a year to rebuild the wards after the old woman had died.
Not that the temple had been unprotected in that time; that would be far too dangerous.
Still, every time she was forced to light a lantern she had not built with her own hands, she could feel how her lack of familiarity hampered her control – left blind spots and cracks that could be exploited with some cunning. Even the simplest, a river rock smoothed by the tumble of water with a small depression in the top for a pool of lamp oil, suffered because she hadn’t collected it with her own hands.
Of course, most nights the wards weren’t really needed. Most nights just the light from the torches would keep things from blundering out of the forest.
She lit the pool of lamp oil in the river rock every night, regardless – and the lantern of willow bark stretched over a frame of lashed sticks. Sometimes others, never more than four or five at a time. That was the other problem with wards she hadn’t made herself, of course; it was difficult to maintain a mental model of more than a few of them at a time. Difficult to picture how they fit together, where they overlapped and reinforced, and where they needed shoring up with her own energy.
Or her sword.
The first time she had drawn her sword after the old woman had died was the first time she realised she would need to rebuild the wards. It was the first time she realised she wasn’t stuck here, she was staying here.