Twenty-fourMature

They walked the streets of Ankora aimlessly. Aoife thought she had seen a spire in the distance, but no matter which way they turned they seemed to come no closer. Half the time, they couldn’t even catch a glimpse of this rumoured spire. The afternoon sun beat down on their backs as they walked—it always seemed to be at their back, no matter which direction they were going—and before long they had been forced to open one of their stolen bottles of water. For Shay and Rin, the ordeal was not so arduous. Rin had several layers he could shed, and Shay was content enough to go without his shirt buttoned—he would sooner have had it completely off, but did not fancy the ordeal of explaining the mess that was his torso—until they were in finer company, but for Aoife the sun was a small torture. Trapped in a mess of skirts, bodice and corset, it was akin to being in her own stove, and there was nothing she could remove to lessen her suffering. Had she done anything wrong, she would have thought it was the Maker punishing her.

“This town doesn’t fuckin’ go anywhere!” Shay yelled angrily, throwing their empty bottle at the wall with a satisfying smash.

“Yes it does,” Rin said, after a moment’s thought.

He had been silent all throughout their journey through the town, that brilliant mind of his mapping out each turn and each building. The other two had not noticed it, for most of Ankora was identical as it was, but they had passed the same house three times now. It was as if the streets were changing, yet they stayed undoubtedly the same each time. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. It was obvious they were going in circles, and from the repetition he was seeing—not to mention that it would be physically impossible—there was no way the buildings were changing either. But something was keeping them from making any progress. A heavy buzzing sensation persisted at the base of his skull, but he shrugged it off as a result of confusion and that infernal sun.

“I am not sure how, but we’re going in circles,” he explained, seeing the questioning looks both Aoife and Shay shot him. “That building there,” he pointed at the sandstone house opposite them, “We’ve passed it three times now.”

“Rinian, I think you’ve been in the sun too long,” Shay said, the faintest glimmer of concern in his voice. “We ain’t been past this before.”

Aoife nodded in agreement, and it was all Rin could do to stare at them in disbelief. Were they seeing something he wasn’t? It was the same building.

“I’m telling you, it’s the same building.” He took a few steps, pointing down the road to the right of them. “Down there, three left turns, and we’d be back at the water place.”

“Rin, we’ve been walking for hours, we couldn’t possibly be near that disgusting old man,” Aoife said, a frown creasing her brow.

The orphan reached for the bottle of water she’d be entrusted with, unplugging the cork stopper and took a few cautious steps toward her friend. Had she known Rin would react this badly to the heat, she would have begged Shay to take them through Olmaea and into the Riverlands. Better to be too cold than too warm, especially somewhere as well supplied with firewood as the Riverlands.

“Here, drink some of this. We can stop for a while, right Shay?” Aoife asked, glancing back at the Olmaean.

Before Shay had a chance to answer, Rin was in motion, knocking the bottle from Aoife’s hand like a sour babe might knock one from its nursemaid. The orphan could do little but watch as the precious liquid inside seeped into the soil beneath them, turning it to a mess of sandy mud.

“I don’t need to stop, and I don’t need water,” Rin protested. Why couldn’t they see it? Even if they hadn’t been paying as much attention to their surroundings as he had, surely they had to see how similar the place was? “We’ve. Been. Here. Before. And if we go left again, I think I’m going to go mad.”

“Well then where do you suggest we go?” Shay asked angrily, storming over to the Western boy and grabbing the collar of his shirt. Shay was exceptionally tall for a human, though Rin had a good four inches on him, but if he wanted to, Shay could quite easily have lifted Rin from the ground and held him there. “If we go left, we go in circles. If we go right, we end up back where we started. How does this possibly end well for us in your deranged universe, huh?”

Rin was silent. To anyone else, it would have appeared that the young man was lost for words, perhaps even intimidated into silence by the brute clutching at him. But to Aoife, and to a certain extent even Shay, it was obvious that his silence was the result of that brilliant mind of his at work. Catalogued away in his head were all sorts of information, both valuable and worthless. He could reel off every known species of butterfly with as much ease as he could list every variety of cheese. He could speak of the ins and outs of machinery, but with little practical experience talking was all he could do on the matter. He had maps and mazes and all sorts of other things burned into his mind, all saved for the day that it might one day benefit him.

He could recall being told as a child that, should one find oneself lost in a maze, one should always head left. In this case, however, it seemed that tactic would not work. They could try heading right, back to the albin and could maybe try their luck asking the old man for directions, but he doubted that would prove fortuitous. It was a long shot, but if he could get a glimpse at the spire that Aoife claimed to have seen, then he might better gain his bearings.

“We have to go up,” he decided eventually, ignoring the laugh that was projected at him from Shay.

“Okay, well, while you grow wings, we’re going to—”

“Not up into the sky, Shay, that’s ludicrous. Just up. Onto the roofs.”

Shay’s grip on Rin’s shirt lessened at that, a grin slowly forming on his lips. He might not have liked the guy, but he couldn’t deny Rin was a genius. Finding a building with a low enough roof could prove problematic, but the idea itself was a brilliant one. He knew he would likely be the one doing the climbing and the lifting, but if it got them out of this hellhole, he didn’t care.

The three of them scoured the patch of Ankora they were in for anything that looked climbable. Unlike Honeywell, most of the buildings in Ankora were two storeys high, and the smooth surface of the sandstone bricks left them virtually impossible to climb. In fact, the way the buildings were made up confused Rin more than anything. His father had been a stonemason, and as such he knew a little about building things from stone. The houses in Ankora should have been made from sandstone bricks cemented together, but no matter how closely he looked, none of the buildings had any seams. As far as he could tell, each one had been carved from a single, giant piece of sandstone. To find a piece large enough for one house was lucky, let alone an entire village. Something wasn’t right about that place, and the more he thought about it, the louder that buzzing in his head got.

“Shay, look over there,” Aoife called out, pointing at one of the buildings to their right.

It was shorter than the rest, and had what looked like a large wooden box propped up against its side. With the added boost, there was no way Shay couldn’t make it, and it looked low enough that he could pull the rest of them up with him.

“Dollface, you’re a star,” Shay grinned, pulling Aoife towards him and kissing her forehead in elation, the both of them temporarily forgetting that Aoife was mad at him.

Shay jumped onto the box with vigor, the wood beneath him giving an unhealthy groan in response so loud that the orphan thought it might break. It took a few attempts, the box groaning each time Shay jumped on it, but eventually he managed to make contact with the edge of the roof. After that, it was easy, he just had to pull himself up. Watching him exert himself like that reminded Aoife just what she had liked about him in the first place, and the grudge she had bore since the previous night began to melt away. If only he knew how lucky he was.

Once Shay was on the roof—no mean feat, if the scrapes across his chest were anything to go by—he looked towards the spire, all the more visible now he was off the ground. They could still do with being higher, but propping Rin up on his shoulders should net them enough extra height to see the way clearly. All he could see himself was a mess of sandstone. He turned back to the others, gesturing for one of them to join him. He wasn’t fussy who came first, though he would rather have gotten the heaviest done with first. Call him selfish but he would rather exhaust himself lifting all six foot four of Rin and look forward to lifting what little there was of Aoife, than the other way around and risk leaving the only one who could actually see any difference in place on the ground

Lifting Rin was easier than he had expected, he would soon discover. The boy was tall, and that had been Shay was most concerned about, but he was skinny, and he was all arms and legs. His jump had such an advantage behind it that he almost reached the top of the building by himself. Once Shay had caught his hand, the Olmaean only had to lift him high enough that he could drag himself up. The Olmaean left Rin to his own devices, knowing the kid was likely trying to scout the area already, and turned his attention to Aoife, who suddenly seemed less keen about the idea than before.

It was silly, really. She and Niamh had clambered all the way to the top of the Cathedral when they were younger, just to look out across the city through the gaps in the spire. She had stood at the highest point of the Great Library with Rin and leaned over the balcony with no fear. But all too suddenly, the idea of being that far off the ground had her frozen in place. What if she fell? What if she couldn’t get back down? What if they were spotted? There were too many what ifs, and no matter how much she tried to move herself, her feet would not come unstuck.

“It’s fine, Shay, really. I’ll stay down here, keep an eye out in case anyone comes,” she insisted, but the nervous look on her face did little to quell his concern on the issue.

He was about to push the subject further—time wasn’t exactly something they were short of—but Rin’s voice had his attention pulled elsewhere. He wasn’t going to drop the subject, though, he would have to store it away for later. Rin, it seemed, could see the spire better than Shay had been able to, but he needed an extra boost to be able to see the town beneath them. Shay wasn’t entirely sure what an extra six foot would earn him, but there was no harm in trying, and soon enough the Western boy was propped on his shoulders.

“It’s not a spire, it’s a pyramid!” he called down, once he had had a chance to survey the place.

It was certainly a strangely shaped pyramid. It’s point was barely thicker than a needle, as far as he could tell at that distance anyway, and following it down the pyramid didn’t seem to extend much. He would have guessed maybe ten feet in length and width. The Oracles didn’t live in there, did they? How would they all fit?

“That’s great, Rinian, but how do we get there?” Shay asked a little sourly. Rin might not have been heavy, but he certainly fidgeted.

Ah. There it was, the million crown question. The ground around the pyramid seemed devoid of anything but sand. An outer ring of houses bordered the expanse of sand, which would make getting to the place easy enough, but the closer to the pyramid they got, the closer together the houses became. They would likely have to walk the whole of that outer ring before they found an exit, and just getting there was going to be enough of a trial. Unlike Shay, who had only seen a mess of stone, though, Rin could see the town in perfect clarity. It took a long few minutes, closer to half an hour than anything, and he would have preferred a piece of paper to jot their path down on, but eventually he had it mapped in his head.

He knew he was asking a lot of Shay and Aoife, to blindly follow him when they couldn’t see anything wrong. It was like asking someone to walk into an endless tunnel of darkness, all the while assuring them that he could see perfectly. If they doubted him, they didn’t let it show as he lead them through the town, snaking through back alleys and pathways that they otherwise hadn’t noticed. Shay was certain the kid was going to get them lost, but he lead them through with such confidence that it was hard to believe he didn’t know where he was going.

Just because they knew where they were going didn’t mean the journey was any easier, though. The sun hung lower in the sky by then, but that didn’t lower the temperature any. It was a miracle the people in the East survived in that heat. Shay was certainly amazed they ever got any work done. It got warm enough in Olmaea in the summer that hard labour was stifling, but that was nothing compared to this. The thought of having to work a piece of cowhide into something usable in this heat had him giving up already. Perhaps this heat was why the buildings were made of solid stone instead of bricks, Rin thought. Having to fashion bricks, then lay them however many hundreds of times for each and every single building didn’t quite seem possible with the desert sun blazing down on them.

The way the town had been built seemed to work against them in turn. The buildings were so closely dotted together that it betrayed just how large the place was. As they neared what they could only assume was the centre of the village, for it would make sense that such a large landmark would be at the heart of the place, the place seemed to shrink in on itself. Where the buildings had been spaced apart before, all of a sudden they were all touching, or were placed together so closely that only a rat could hope to squeeze through the gap. The hours they had wasted wandering in circles, and now the hours they were having to waste trying to find places to reach the heart of Ankora… They were all mounting up, and they were all hours the trio weren’t sure they had to waste. Ankora was a decent way away from Eturia, but there was no telling how far the city watch would search to find the culprit of the Cathedral massacre.

The End

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