(Note: This is not official version and may be removed in the near future. This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter. I have preserved the rough form for posterity — or something like that. This novel has since been rewritten.)
The lead archer called himself Iliad. He was a tall man, brown hair, brown eyes, and a wide, white, toothy smile that stretched from cheek to cheek. His bow was strung over his shoulder—a light cerise color and carved with gently wavy lines—and he gladly welcomed James, Pea, and Darl to the far shore of the Nor’duíl River.
James learned quickly that Iliad and his men were scouts, in one sense of the word. They were more or less given orders to intentionally cause trouble, at least according to Iliad. James thought it strange that such an order would be given, but he accepted it. Who am I to question a Lord, he thought. It occurred to him that perhaps Iliad was simply told to cause distraction. The location of the Summering Rocks, as he understood it, was the only place for miles that was safe for any man to cross. One could ride north of the Drain and cross there, but that ran into the problem of figuring out how to cross the Drain itself—a rushing and utterly dangerous river that acted as a run off for the overflowing reaches of the Nor’kal River.
James followed Iliad away and into an open field that stretched flat and open for miles, Pea and Darl close behind. Even bushes were scarce here, and only in the far off distance could he see anything tall enough to be a tree. Browned and dwindling grasses made up the field, a sign of a warm summer to come. He had seen pictures of the valley in California, a place where spring made the landscape look like a beautiful recreation of the green, luscious hills of Scotland. Things looked beautiful there—emerald green everywhere, flowers blooming brilliantly like little beacons of beauty rising from the earth. Then summer hit, and everything seemed to die. The heat was too strong for the grasses that once made the hills green. The fields turned golden brown and unwelcoming, though many found them beautifully. James, however, did not. Only the trees stayed green, and barely at all for they looked duller than they once had. Here, across the Nor’duíl River, it looked like much the same had happened. The wide field looked like a treeless California meeting with a treeless Africa, uniting under one visual banner.
Burs, stickers, and foxtails clung to the Blaersteeds’ fur. Big clumps covered their legs, and not only the steeds, but the archers as well, as if they were little parasitic passengers hoping to catch a ride to the next town.
Nor’sigal sat some ways away in the center of the field. It was a tall place, not in the same sense that Arlin City was tall, but in the way it presented itself. In the center was the keep—a structure that rose up above everything else. The square walls of the city were the lowest structures visible, as buildings within slowly climbed in altitude making the keep seem like the tip of a giant wood and stone pyramid. And then there was nothing else. No city outside of the walls, nothing. Nor’sigal looked like a diamond in the rough. James couldn’t see any farmland nearby. Where do they get their food? He wondered how a city like Nor’sigal—a relatively large city that could house a few thousand people easily—could survive without any farmland nearby.
He decided to consult the etiquette book. He regretted not having used it in a while and imagined if the book were alive it would dislike him for his lack of attention.
In bold, shiny gold letters, gleaming like a warning, was a message that said:
“I regret to inform all of you who have so dutifully supported my work on this particular book, that this will be my last update. It has come to my attention that civilization is falling. It is perhaps a possibility that the future will hold peace once again and I may resume my most respectful of duties. Until such times I will be in hiding, for I cannot risk being taken by the ruthless madman that runs through our world. So, in my final words I greet you with a plethora of new material, the last material. Much is incomplete, horribly incomplete I might add, but it will all serve a greater purpose. I know this, and believe this. Thank you all and may you all be safe in these dark times.”
Then in bold was the date and a wavy lined signature from Azimus Barthalamule.
James couldn’t believe it. He stared at the paragraph, the last words of the man who had created How Not to Be Barbarian, Fifteenth Edition. He couldn’t believe that the world was changing this much. Even the smallest things were going away. He wondered how many others were going into hiding now. Was Azimus the only one? Would there be many others? Yet Azimus had to go into hiding. He knew that much. Azimus knew far too much to end up dead some place. If civilization really was crumbling, then Azimus might have the knowledge to bring it back.
For a while he sat on Mirdur’eth’s back with his eyes fixed on the opening page of the etiquette book. He gently shook his head, incredulity taking him. Then, slowly he reached out and turned the page to the table of contents. Every single section was lit up. The table stretched for dozens of pages, all of which seemed to have appeared out of thin air. Each entry was bold and bright gold. New sections were added in the last few pages—What to do When Your Horse is Nicer Than Your Wife, The Secret World of Illegal Salvaging, Unkempt Men and How to Train Them, and The Proper Care of Elderly Magic Users, among others. He quickly searched for Nor’sigal. He had time as the horses slowly trotted through the browning grass, making sure that Iliad and his men weren’t trampled or left behind.
Finding it, he began to read. First he skimmed through statistical information, everything from how many people lived in the city to how many pigeons could be found at any one time in the city square. He smiled faintly at that. He thought it absurd that anyone would take the time to watch pigeons to find out how many of them were around. Then he found exactly what he was looking for. He dug in, paying careful attention to the words:
“Nor’sigal is special for one very specific reason—it has no need for farmland, domestic animals, and the like. It is self-sufficient because it is the only city in all of Traea that relies entirely on magic. The city itself is built over a crater left many hundreds of years ago by The White Star, the name given to the first of the great warnings from the heavens. Left within the crater were the remains of what is believed to be the very essence of the Great Fathers—a magical entity that can only be described as shiny dust. This, of course, raises questions as to why nobody bothered to clean the dust from the hole before building what is now Nor’sigal, for surely the housewives of the men doing the building would have complained much on this fact. The dust acts as a lubricant and thus prevents the city from remaining completely still in its place. Nor’sigal, you see, is not only special in that magic provides it with instantaneous crops, fresh meat, and grains, but that it never remains still. This explains the common nickname for the city—The City That Never Sleeps—and the alternate name—Sea-sick City. Some say that the city turns with the year, coming completely back to its original spot on January 1st. This, obviously, is completely and utterly absurd, for it has been determined that the movements are completely random and are not based upon gravity, but upon the effects and movement of the magic essence below as it is used and moved. Essentially, laziness has driven the city into movement.
James let the words trail off in his mind.
“That’s insane,” he said in a mumble.
“What is?” Iliad said.
James jumped. “You heard me?”
“Of course I did. It’s my job. I have to see, hear, and move well. We’re sort of, well, special that way.” Iliad didn’t turn to face him. “Now, what is insane?”
Iliad laughed roughly. “Well, that’s not the first time I’ve heard that. It’s a floating city after all. But it works.”
“I guess it does.”
“This world,” Pea chimed in, “is filled to the brim with magic. Remember that. Regardless of how it is used, magic is a part of the fabric of everything.”
“That’s one interpretation I suppose.” Iliad laughed again.
Pea grumbled something unintelligible.
“Now you’re starting to sound like me,” Darl said.
James glanced back. A huge grin grew on Darl’s face; Pea glared.
“Maybe we’ll call you the grumpy one from now on.” Then Darl laughed a loud, overbearing laugh. James thought for a moment that the earth itself would move with the sound of it. Then he, too, laughed.
When they arrived at Nor’sigal James looked closely at the foundations of the city. What the etiquette book had said was not only true, but a complete understatement. Iliad calling it a floating city was much closer to reality. The city moved slowly, but noticeably. Below he could see the crater and the faint glow of what he assumed was the dusty essence. A massive mound of earth below the entire city acted as the only solid foundation that kept it from crashing into the crater. There was a wide gap between the city and the unmoving earth. No man could jump it. It was a waterless moat. At the front was a long bridge made of wood planks woven together in such a fashion that it could flex ever so slightly as the city moved.
Iliad quickly led them onto the bridge and they crossed. The bridge sagged gently, but it held firm. The ear splitting sound of a bird of prey sounded and he looked up. Two falcons, large and rusty red, flew overhead and disappeared beyond the walls. They carried news from Ti’nagal; that much he knew. He only hoped that it was not bad news.
The doors to the city were thick wood and just high enough for the three riders to pass through without leaning over. The doors were small in comparison to the other cities he had been to, but in the center of the wood was carved the Celtic World Tree—a design he had seen before on the gates of Arlin City. It was curved with branches and representations of leaves along the edges. He twisted away from the doors as they entered the city.
The bustling interior of the city was, to his surprise, much less than he had expected. The dozens upon dozens of houses were not in perfect and were not rising in perfect fashion to the keep. There were streets, but along them were homes of all shapes and sizes, some built on top of one another. Behind those was the first row of buildings he had seen, and these were organized. But the lowest level, the level that could not be seen outside of the gates, looked raggedy, as if these buildings were part of the city when it was first being built.
They were led up the first street and soon were surrounded on all sides by buildings. Shadows crept down from above as the sun moved along the sky. Allies were bathed in gray. Then the keep came into plain view. The stone structure was massive. It stood four stories high and was just as thick. In each corner were balconies with crenellated balustrades. Arrow slits were evenly spaced ten to a floor on each side. The roof was crenellated as well and James could see the heads of a couple armored men that walked there. The entrance was a single wooden door laced with strips of iron that opened wide as they approached. A tall man came out of the door. He had a trimmed red beard that was slowly turning as white as his hair and a long dark blue cape that flowed behind him. His face was wrinkled slightly, suggesting that he was well into his fifties. Two armored men followed him.
“Thank the Great Fathers,” Lord Falth said, opening his arms wide in a hugging gesture. “James of Woodton. Welcome to Nor’sigal.”
He dismounted fastidiously. Pea and Darl followed his motion.
“Lord Falth,” James said, swiftly remembering to bow ever so slightly.
Pea and Darl bowed inclined their heads.
Lord Falth grinned heartily. “Come, please. We have much to discuss before you must go.”
James gently rubbed Mirdur’eth’s neck, looking the black beast in the eye. Mirdur’eth nodded gently and he walked away from the steed. Iliad dismissed his men, who in turn wandered off.
Inside the keep there was an enormous main room that had been overrun with tables covered in maps. Several men argued in a far corner. James assumed they were military advisors to Lord Falth. There were others sitting and staring at maps in obvious deep thought. Their heads were turned down, brows crumpled, and lips moving randomly as if they were chewing something. Then there were others who stared in disbelief. These men were young, not much older than James and barely men at all. They looked at him as if he were a ghost. He averted his gaze, not wanting to look them in the eye. He had seen that look before when Triska, Darl, Gammon, and Pea had learned the truth about him. Still, the gaze dug into him, even now with all he had been through.
He followed Lord Falth up a dank and cracked staircase to the second floor of the keep. There a hallway ran all the way to the end where another staircase spiraled upward to the third floor. Several doors were along this hallway. Lord Falth opened the second and, after everyone was inside, unintentionally closed the door with a loud bang. He flinched at the sound, but said nothing.
A long, round, cherry wood table occupied the center of the room. Three anthropomorphic black iron oil lamps were fastened to the wall and lit. They depicted strange dog-like creatures dancing on their hind-legs; their flames sent flickering light through the room. Seven stools were laid out around the table and Lord Falth quickly took a seat and beckoned everyone else to do the same. James sat slowly. He looked down at his tunic for a brief moment, noticing the dirt and grass stains, and then turned his gaze upward.
“I saw two falcons fly overhead,” he said. “Has Ti’nagal been destroyed?”
“Oh, not yet,” Lord Falth said, his voice scruffy. “One thing I have learned about the people of Ti’nagal and of Lord Alrith is that they are some of the most resourceful people in all of the Farthland. It will take more than a week to break their outer defenses.”
“What news then?” Darl said concernedly.
Lord Falth turned to Iliad, then to Darl. “Only three wall-breakers remain.”
“…wall breakers?” James curled his brow.
“It’s the name that’s been given to those men who wield the shadow-rams.”
“Unfortunately that means my nephew’s men won’t have much of a time taking them down when they come here.”
“In any case, three remain of the ten or so that were once there. Once the lava dried Luthien sent in a wave to batter down the walls, since the wall-breakers couldn’t reach them in the first place. That wave was wiped out. You probably saw the traps they were setting. Made quick waste of two thousand soldiers. The second wave failed and fled. The second falcon that came had a message that said there is a general standstill, though Luthien is requesting that Alrith surrender.”
“Won’t happen so long as there is breath in his lungs,” Darl said with a sneer.
“Oh, this I know. Lord Alrith has only surrendered once. In a game of chess. And it was because I cheated.” Lord Falth smiled broadly. “Now, first we must attend to this bizarrely logical plan of Alrith’s. Then, I think I may have a welcome surprise for you all.”
“I don’t think I can take many more surprises.” James peered downward.
Lord Falth nodded sympathetically, his eyes dampening.
Their journey was to commence that very day, and no later. Their Blaersteeds would be re-supplied and blades sharpened. To add, Iliad was accompanying them, for it turned out that of all the people in Nor’sigal, he was the only one that had actually been through the Fire Rim more than once. Regardless of Iliad’s inexperience with the dreaded dead zone, James knew that just having someone who had been there would make things easier. Iliad too had been through the passage beneath the Spyder Range. He would be their guide.
Yet, James noticed, Iliad did not seem at all pleased with this assignment. His arms were crossed and his eyes staring off into nothingness like a zombie. James wondered if there was a sense of shame there, shame at abandoning ones post rather than remaining to fight to the bitter end. But Iliad would be coming no matter what. No man would deny an order from a Lord.
The plan was laid out swiftly. They were to ride to the Fire Rim, across the Nor’kal River via a bridge near the runoff into The Drain. Once at the Fire Rim they would take the Scorched Path, one known by Iliad to lead, generally speaking, in the right direction, if not occasionally becoming muddled and confusing in a land that endlessly burned. Then, according to Lord Falth, it would be smooth sailing to the Spyder Range—or riding, if preferred. James had a strange feeling that this plan sounded much easier than it actually was. He wondered how much time Iliad had spent in the Fire Rim and the reason for it. Iliad looked no older than in his mid twenties, no wrinkles, no thinning hair, and Luthien had, from his understanding, always been hostile. He couldn’t think of any reason why someone would want to go into Angtholand, or through the Fire Rim. Even posing as a traveler looking to spend money wasn’t worth the trip.
Then he found himself suddenly grateful to Iliad. He knew that he, Pea, or Darl, would have no advantage in the Fire Rim. None of them had ever been there, but Iliad had, and that advantage might get them through alive and well and with plenty of time to spare.
“Now,” Lord Falth took a deep breath, having finished laying out the foundations of the plan. “I hope this all makes sense. Iliad will be with you through it all. Is everything clear?”
Everyone but James nodded. They eyed him warily now, and he started to crumble under the pressure. Then he said to Iliad, “How well do you know this path?”
Iliad shifted uncomfortably. He took a long breath and let it out slowly. “I’ve been through it three times in my lifetime. But it has been years since I was last there.”
“Can you get us through alive?”
Another long pause, followed by a slow, gentle sight. “I believe so.”
“Then our lives are in your hands.” With that he nodded to Lord Falth and the meeting was over.
It had not been nearly as long as he had expected such a meeting to be. The sun had hardly moved in the sky from where it had been when they arrived. Lord Falth took them out of the room, down the stairs, and outside of the keep. Iliad excused himself with a low bow and took off behind the keep to where the stables were, visible only by the edge of the thatched roof. Then James, Pea, and Darl were led to the opposite side where one of the large buildings sat with open doors. It was tall and colored rust red. It looked a lot older than it actually was, as James could see some of the planks of wood that were used to make it; they still looked new. There were three floors to this particular building. He likened it to an apartment building in that each floor seemed to have two rooms, each with a window. Yet it was made entirely like a building from medieval culture. It bore no similarities to the massive buildings in New York in the way it was built.
They were led inside and instantly the smell of cinnamon and cocoa filled James’ nose. He paused in a moment of déjà vu. Then the scent shifted to that of ginger, then to jasmine. He sniffed it with interest; it had been a while since he smelled jasmine. Then the scent changed suddenly, as if at random. Jasmine fell away, the after-scents of cinnamon and coca, and ginger, dropped from the air. This new smell was sweet, unimaginably sweet. At first he couldn’t tell what it was for it had been so long since he had smelled it. His mother hadn’t baked them in months. The scent of chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven, still warm and gooey in the center. Saliva welled up in his mouth.
“Now that is a curious smell,” someone deeper in the room said. There were drapes hanging everywhere—golden yellows, reds, browns, and oranges, all intermingling like a family of earthly colors. A figure moved in the back, distorted by the drapes. Then the person came forward and James nearly collapsed on his knees. Tears welled up in his eyes.