“Impressive, isn’t it?”
Alice heard Red speak, but it was a distant and unremarkable fact – something so far in the background that it didn’t really register.
She heard him say “Oh, right. She’s a human, and it’s her first time seeing it, of course. Hey, Alice?”
The Tower filled her field of vision, so much so that she barely noticed him snapping his fingers in front of her face. It was just… more real. So real that nothing could truly occlude it. She felt him put his hand over her eyes, but she could still see the Tower, burning in her vision as clear as it had ever been, so solid that everything else seemed transparent against it.
“I’m going to regret this, but this calls for drastic measures.”
The next voice was Aidra’s. “It’s your funeral, mate.”
She didn’t see Red lick his finger, but she definitely felt him stick it in her ear. With a sudden rush of sensation, she was back in herself and no longer entranced by the Tower. She shrieked, elbowed Red hard in the solar plexus, and nearly fell out of her seat.
“Told you,” said Aidra smugly as Red wheezed.
“Why the hell’d you do that?” she yelled, wiping her ear with her sleeve.
“Because I didn’t know how – oww – sharp your elbows are?”
“Wait, I… what was-” she almost turned back to the window, but Red caught her arm.
“Hey, don’t look too hard at it, you’re not used to it yet. Sorry, I didn’t warn you before.”
She glared at him a little more for good measure. “How does it even do that?”
“Well, it is a construction of fundamental Law, built by a bunch of mad people. It’s awful, as in full of awe.”
“Full of awe?”
“Mined in the form of awe ore and then refined into awe or oars.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
He smirked. “Okay, fine. They don’t make it into boat oars, but the Tower is genuinely made partly of awe or awe ore, depending on which parts.”
“I hate this.”
“You should get used to it over time. Before then, I could see about shielding your mind from the Tower. Um, if that’s okay with you, that is.”
She smiled. “That’d be great, thanks.”
“Well done,” said Aidra, “you asked permission this time.”
Alice and Red both said “Shut up” at the same time.
“Anyway,” said Red, ignoring him, “if you just hold still a second…”
He reached out with his right hand, faint flickers of scarlet light glinting within the crystal. The rock of his fingers was cold against her forehead, and something tingled across her scalp.
“Is that it?”
Red shrugged, and pointed back out the window, towards the Tower. It still held an impossible weight, a realness greater than the world around it, like the rest of the landscape was in watercolours and it was in oils. But, this time, it didn’t seize her perceptions or capture her senses. She could see the details of the Tower, now, as they drew closer. Every part of the structure looked sharp, every detail clear even over the distance it was sitting at, despite the thin haze in the air. It was constructed of various shades of dark stone, with an inlay of spiralling silver patterns that drew the eye in long dizzying paths to find a centre that never seemed to appear. The architecture was like a cathedral, sharp spires jutting both upwards and downwards, Gothic windows and arches pointed at both ends, adding up to a shape reminiscent of a church whose builders had no truck with such petty forces as gravity. Deeper in, she caught glimpses of glittering stained glass, shapes illuminated in colours she didn’t have space in her mind to describe, depicting scenes she couldn’t understand, everything appearing in the terrifying detail that seemed to encompass this false Axis – detail she could see perfectly, even hundreds of metres away. The Tower seemed to widen, fractal detail filling her field of vision, and it was with great difficulty that she managed to tear her eyes from it, to turn to look back at her friends, but she managed.
“It’s… impressive?” she managed to say, after a few seconds of stunned silence. The words felt flat, as if the Tower was too much, too powerful to be described by words.
[The Original Tower Of Axioms Has Much The Same Effect. It Is, However, Less Malign. I Went On Pilgrimage, Once, As Close As I Could Stand To Its Pure Axiomatic Emission.]
“How did it even get built? How do you… do something like this?”
“A cult of mad architects, basically,” said A Librarian. “From what I was taught, there were a couple of Demiurges involved, but the bulk of the work was done by a creature called It Which Shapes.”
[An Escaped Angel Of The Forge, Fallen And Cast Out.]
“Right,” said Alice, as the train drew through one of the arches, into the Tower itself. “Why the heck is this a city, anyway? Isn’t it a horrible place to be?”
A Librarian shrugged. “Honestly, no idea. I guess you get used to it?”
The train slowed to a stop, and they alighted on a platform built oddly, propped up against a stone floor that stood at an angle. Above them, a vast vaulted ceiling swooped and dove through thousands of beautiful shapes, sprouting from gigantic pillars that stretched up from the tilted floor. As she looked further, towards the edges of the cavernous space, it took her a moment to work out what she was looking at.
“Oh, is gravity weird here too?”
There were clusters of buildings in the room, obviously not of the same construction as the Tower itself, that somehow stood as if the floor was level. Beyond the edge of the platform, the foot traffic of mostly A Librarians were walking around directly on the floor, standing at angles like it was the easiest thing in the world.
“Aha,” said Red, “I’ll check.”
He closed his eyes and muttered something under his breath. Beneath his eyelids, his eyes glowed as he traced glittering lines in the air with his crystal hand.
“I could just tell you,” said Aidra, “but he’s trying so hard, the poor thing. I’ll let him have his moment.”
Still murmuring and making patterns, Red raised his free hand in a gesture expressing just how little he appreciated Aidra’s contribution to the discussion.
[Do Not Bicker, Young Ones.]
“You’re not my real mum, giant robot lady!”
[No, I Am Not.]
“Anyway,” said Red, opening his eyes again, “I was right – the floors in this place are lined with a thin layer of downward-facing dust, and thus are ‘down’ for the purposes of gravity. You should have no trouble walking on it once we’ve left the platform. Not sure how they got the platform to be level, but maybe something similar.”
“Huh, cool.” Alice walked to the stairs off the platform, and at the bottom, gingerly reached out and placed her foot square on the stone floor. As soon as she did so, the world seemed to shift, reorienting so that the flagstones of the floor were ‘down’, and she nearly fell over trying to right herself.
“Right then,” she said brightly, “did we have anything specific to do here, or are we just going to this Arboretum place or Realm or whatever?”
It was Red who replied. “I think we should get going. STAR are going to try to find you again, and it’d be best that anything we do do here-”
“Ha ha, you said doodoo!”
He glared at Aidra before continuing. “Anything we do here should be on the way to the Causeway. I think it’s this way, but there should be signs too.”
He set off, and the rest of the group followed.