Chapter Seven Continued
The Towers of Learning
The impossibly tall timber buildings, with their magickal extensions jutting out here and there, hemmed them in on either side like a prison, a thin slice of the dark starry sky was the only thing visible overhead.
Silence hung between them, like a cloak, as they approached the top of the hill, its apex marked by an ancient stone gateway depicting The Angry Ones brandishing scales, scissors and swords as they passed their Judgement.
Drake strode under the great stone arch and almost immediately his head felt like it was going to explode; he could feel pressure building at the back of his eyes and his nose throbbed like it’d been broken. There was a popping sound in his head and bile rose up his windpipe and into his mouth, its acrid taste burning as it travelled upwards. He wanted to speak, to let Willow know what was happening but he couldn’t form the words. Somehow he managed to keep putting one leg in front of the other until the feeling passed and the nausea subsided.
The Purg Atrium, as it was known, opened out before them like a flower bursting into bloom, a mind-bending, vertigo-inducing example of Nowhere’s ingenuity; how else would such a vast square fit into such a small space? The Elders of Nowhere had wanted a large square to dispense their unique brand of justice and lack of space was not going to stop them. They had, with the help of very strong ancient magick, the slaughter of several thousand Nature Spirits, the sacrifice of ten virgins and the death of the Master builder in mysterious but very auspicious circumstances, made sure they had got it.
And as it had cost a small fortune, bankrupting several well-off families and resulting in many lawsuits (most notably from the families of the virgins and the Master Builder), The Elders made sure it was worth every penny by using it. A lot. The evidence of this was plain to see; The chair, with its rusty iron shackles and chains, was covered in thick, gloopy layers of congealed blood, the rows of empty wooden stocks were still caked in the slime of rotting fruit and vegetables thrown that very morning, bodies, at various degrees of decomposition, still hung from the gnarled branches of the evil-looking Purga Tree next to fresh nooses waiting to be filled, and the bloated body of a middle-aged man, dressed in what looked like a nappy, still floated face-down in the waters of The Great Fountain of Truth.
Drake looked at Willow; she was pale and sweaty like she was going to be…
A pile of vomit catapulted from her mouth, landing in a big splat on the floor, splashing over her pumps.
‘Are you okay?’
Willow nodded weakly, cradling her stomach with her hands.
‘Sorry, should’ve warned you about that, but -’ he stopped as Willow glared in his direction.
‘It’s only a little further,’ said Drake changing tack, ‘we‘ll be there soon.’ If he was honest, he didn’t want to linger in the square too long himself; too many horrific memories stalked him here. He waited until she had flushed her mouth out with water before putting his arm around her to help her across the square.
‘I’m fine,’ she snapped, shrugging him off.
‘It’s just through there,’ he said, pointing to a small passageway to the left of a notice board covered in Wanted posters.
They hurried across the square, not wanting to focus too much on the gory detail although the smell of rotting flesh seemed to be clawing its way inside them, forcing itself upon their senses. As they neared the other side a yellowing poster caught Drake’s eye; it showed the face of a small boy with a black marking around his right eye who was wanted for the theft of a dragon and various counts of vandalism. Drake smiled to himself, is that all I’m worth, five thousand Asses?
‘Does the whole of this town smell like death and urine?’ asked Willow, covering her nose and mouth with her hand.
‘Yep, this is about as good as it gets,’ said Drake, leading her quickly through the slimy passageway, the green moss squelching under their feet like a thick mouldy carpet, until finally, they stepped out into the Mystickal Plaza of All Mystickal Magick.
The Plaza was shaped like a six-sided star and was surrounded by towers and buildings of different colours, shapes and sizes. A large blue orb rotated and undulated at its centre about eight metres from the ground, thin tendrils of blue light stretching out from it, like long spindly fingers reaching out to each of the towers.
Willow’s mouth fell open, her eyes widening as she walked, her pink hair standing on end as they passed close to the orb. ‘The legendary Orb of All Mystickal Magick,’ she gasped, her finger tracing a virtual line from the orb to one of the towers, ‘and those, those are the Towers of Learning. When a Mystick studies under the Mystickal School of Magick they have to travel the Seven Steps to Fulfilment. Each time they pass a module their tower miraculously grows taller, adding another level to their knowledge. Only when the next level reveals itself can they start to study its secrets.’
‘Yeah, all very interesting but can we just find Alchymia please?’ Bloody girls. One minute they were having a go, the next they were off in a world of their own.
Willow stood frozen to the spot. ‘Oh my god, look at that,’ she said pointing to a carved stone tree with a trunk as thick as an average sized house. Its branches supported the rooms of learning that the Mystick had already studied. At the top of the tree a small light had begun to sparkle like a diamond; the next room of learning being born, like a new star. ‘Isn’t it beautiful? I wish I could learn magick like that.’
Drake pretended not to hear and continued walking, hoping that Willow might get the hint and follow him. He could hear her prancing behind him, gasping and ooh-ing like they were watching a fireworks display. The architecture and magick of Nowhere was lost on him. He’d seen the darker side of the town; its underbelly; the true character of the place that was nothing like the gleaming structures of wood, stone and other-worldly materials that most of the Mysticks chose as an outward demonstration of their intellect. The same intellectuals who turned the other way as men and magickal beings were systematically tortured and butchered under their noses.
The only exception to this was Alchymia, the only being in the whole town whom Drake respected. She had been the only one who had tried to help when Falkor had been shackled to the floor in the Purg Atrium, the only one who had protested as the Elders and the dwarves made their preparations to slaughter the last dragon in England and the only one who stopped Drake wiping this godforsaken town out of his memory for good.
Drake liked to think that Alchymia’s tower was a representation of the woman herself; it stood out in its simplicity and towered above any of the structures in the Mystickal Quarter, its apex lost in the canopy of the dark starry night. It was the width of a small church and was made out of polished Hematite which reflected the stars from the sky, making it look as if the tower had been fashioned from the Universe itself.
A sign hung from a single nail on the wooden door. It warned visitors to beware of the cat.
‘Be careful when we meet Alchymia,’ he warned Willow, a faint smirk on his lips, ’she isn’t all that she seems. Oh, and beware of her cat.’
‘Yeah, it‘s got issues and Willow-’
‘Don’t look out of the windows.’
‘Anything else? Can I breathe?’ Willow placed her hands on her hips.
Drake rolled his eyes and turned to the door. ‘Something’s wrong,’ he hissed; the door was lopsided, hanging off its hinges like someone had partially kicked it in. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck tingling, his gut reaction telling him to be very, very careful. He raised his finger to his mouth to tell Willow to be very still and very quiet.
His eyes flicked back and forth from the door to the shadows, but he could see nothing, his eyes duller and less sensitive now he was without Falkor. He could hear nothing unusual, just the low buzz of the orb humming gently in the background.
As sure as he could be that it was not an ambush, he lightly touched the door and it swung limply inwards revealing the dark and empty reception room beyond, dominated by a spiral staircase. The whole room was lit only by a trail of twinkling tea lights rising up the staircase.
Tentatively they entered, their eyes scanning the shadows for movement. In silence, they walked over to the staircase and began to climb up to the first floor.
The front door banged shut. Drake’s heart jumped into his throat and he immediately froze where he stood.
He could feel Willow tensing behind him as she clamped her hand tightly around the bannister to steady herself. They stood perfectly still, listening. But all Drake could hear was the pounding of the blood in his ears.
It must have been wind, thought Drake, as he began to slowly move up the stairs again. But he felt jumpy, his heart still racing in his chest. He was far too on edge, what the hell was wrong with him?