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.”
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.