“A friend of Fae Greyson will always be welcome here,” said Meister Roderick.
Madeline Crowley nodded gratefully at him. She sat across from the diminutive old Cartographer in a corner of the main house at Cartographer’s Waystation, one of the few places avoiding the hustle and bustle of the busy mapmaking work.
“Won’t you eat?” Roderick asked.
In front of Madeline was a plate with a pair of sandwiches on it, and a saucer bearing a tea cup filled with a caramel-colored liquid. Steam softly wafted from its surface.
“I’m sorry,” Madeline said, shaking her head. “I guess I’m a bit… anxious.”
“No need to worry,” Roderick said with a grandfatherly smile. “In a moment we’ll have maps before us giving us a clear idea of where Fae is and the options you have for reaching her.”
Madeline nodded and took a bite of her sandwich. The flavor didn’t even seem to occur to her, and she noticed her hands shook slightly.
I didn’t think I was so jittery.
After a few more bites and some sips of tea, a younger woman Cartographer came over with a bundle of maps, laying them on the table between Madeline and Roderick. Roderick seemed surprised at the number, and took his time spreading them out. When he found the map he sought, he let out a soft gasp.
“Well, then,” he said, tapping his finger on the table. “Well, then… her journey has taken her to a fascinating place, indeed.”
“Where is she?” Madeline asked, leaning forward. But while other maps displayed the names of their Locations boldly, the map that Roderick stared at did no such thing. All it showed was a small, oblong piece of land, and on it were names: Fae Greyson, Mercury Star, Jupiter Star, Neptune Star, and Gerick Irsotz.
And before them, looking as if it were suspended in the air or floating in an ocean – the map didn’t indicate whether the space around the land was water or sky – was a strange name, one with so many consonants packed together and strange symbols included that Madeline couldn’t parse it out.
“Somewhere none of us can go,” Roderick said. “But don’t fret. If she pulls through this – and I’m certain she will, she’s a surprisingly formidable young woman, in her own way – then we can see where she’ll end up. And that…” Roderick shuffled the maps, reaching one labeled “Plains of the Fallen: Artist Camp.” He tapped a finger on it. “…would be here.”
“But I can’t… help her,” Madeline said, feeling her appetite vanish.
“Not with her present predicament, no,” Roderick said. “But don’t get so glum. She has a great, extensive journey before her. And she’ll be quite pleased to see a friend after all this time, I’m certain of it.”
Right. Don’t get down.
She’s got a lot ahead of her. Even if you can’t be there for what she’s up against right now, you can be there for the rest of it.
“So how do I get to the Plains of the Fallen?” Madeline asked.
“Let’s see…” Roderick said, shuffling the maps with one hand while he checked an oversized wristwatch he bore on the other. “438:97:54… so then… ah, I see why she brought so many maps.” He laid the maps out neatly in two rows, the one on top containing only two maps, the one on the bottom bearing seven. “The first path is much easier and safer. You’ll simply pass through Starlight Spires, taking a door in Millennium Vista to the Plains. You’ll have a wait ahead of you, though – the door to the Plains of the Fallen won’t be open until 675:23:06.”
“Until what?” Madeline asked, blinking twice.
“Ah, yes, sorry about that,” Roderick said with a chuckle. “Universal time. A lot more numbers than Humans are used to. For comparison’s sake, that would be in about… four days.”
“Days?” Madeline asked. She flinched after a beat, realizing only then that she’d raised her voice to nearly a shout. Despite that, no one looked at her strangely, no one stopped their work – aside from a rather round-faced young lady Cartographer who hadn’t been working in the first place, instead sleeping beneath a table in the center of the building’s main floor, snoring away with a pleased smile on her face – and Roderick simply chuckled.
“I didn’t think you’d be fond of that approach,” Roderick said. “The other path available to you is swifter – you’ll be able to reach the Plains in less than a day – but it is treacherous. First of all, the Locations you’ll have to brave are much less welcoming, particularly to Humans with respect to your first destination. And second of all, you’ll have to be swift, as each exit changes to a new Location in a very short time frame. I won’t have long to prepare you for what’s ahead.”
“I’ll take the second path,” Madeline said.
Roderick nodded, his expression shifting to the serious. “Then we must hurry,” he said. “Please, eat and drink up. You’ll want your strength.” As he said that, he waved over a male Cartographer with a swiftly receding hairline. “Procure some provisions for our guest, won’t you, Soren? You know what, I trust.” Soren nodded, rushing off to another room. “Now then, let me talk you through your journey.”
Roderick cast aside the maps of Starlight Spires and Millennium Vista, focusing on the second set of maps. “First you have to brave Sunset Square,” he said. “It’s a fairly pleasant place in terms of first impressions. But it has an insidious dark side, especially for Humans. To put it simply, keep your head down and don’t draw attention to yourself. If your Humanity is discovered, you will be arrested, and while your life won’t be in danger, your chance of reaching Fae – and your own personal wellbeing and health – will suffer. Follow the map to Sunset Station and take the Titan Rail to Titan’s Belt.” Here Roderick indicated three maps, labeled “Titan’s Belt,” “Titan’s Spine,” and “Titan’s Crown.”
“Titan is a vast Location,” Roderick continued, “what you could compare to an entire country, while most Locations are essentially a small city or singular place. Titan contains multiple cities unto themselves, each at different points on a gigantic statue. Titan Rail will take you to Titan’s Belt, and you’ll have to climb the Spine from there to the Crown, where you’ll find the exit to your next Location. The challenge at Titan will be moving fast enough to reach the exit, as you have a great deal of ground to cover, and not a lot of time to do it. We’ll talk time after I walk you through the journey itself.”
“Should I copy these maps?” Madeline asked, pulling a sketchbook and pencil from her bag.
“Oh, no, don’t burden yourself with that,” Roderick said, waving a hand. “These maps will be yours for the journey ahead.”
“Meister, are you certain that’s wise?” asked Soren, returning with a bundle wrapped in cloth.
“Wisdom is not in question here,” Roderick said, a twinkle in his eye. “We must be generous to our guest, Soren. Spare no expense for Madeline’s journey.” Soren nodded and left.
Roderick shifted focus to the next map, labeled “Wood of the Wisps.” “This is a rather pleasant place, all told,” he said. “However, the trick is in time. The Wisps here have a tendency to get attached to visitors, and visitors have a tendency to reciprocate. It’s easy to lose track of time here. A beautiful, wondrous place, but treacherous in its own way, at least for those with a time-sensitive goal. Keep your eyes on the destination, and all will be well.” He checked his watch again and clicked his tongue. “I dearly wish I could give you more information on each Location. Let’s move on, make sure you’re as prepared as I can get you.”
The next map was labelled “Unfathomable Emptiness.” “I wish you did not have to pass by this place,” Roderick said, his voice grim. “The Emptiness… it is a great chasm, a strange and forbidden place. You must pass by it without gazing into the chasm itself. That will prove difficult – it is seductive, tempting, magnetic. And your exit is right on the edge,” at this he indicated the spot on the map, “so you have the smallest amount of room for error. If you do look into the chasm, it isn’t guaranteed to be the end – I know of three curious individuals who have gazed into the Emptiness and returned to tell of it. But they had each other, whereas you walk alone. Keep your eyes on the path before you, not the great and terrible forces that attempt to draw your gaze.”
Madeline nodded, committing Roderick’s warnings and guidance to heart while also drawing notes as reminders in a smaller sketchbook. She remained silent, doing nothing that might slow Roderick down and leave him without the room to tell her as much as he could.
“Finally, the last leg of your journey,” Roderick said, moving forward a map labelled “Hall of Reflections.” He tapped a finger on it three times, humming thoughtfully. “A strange place. For some it is, quite honestly, a Location that inspires reflection, meditation, and thoughtfulness. But for many, it is where they are forced to come face-to-face with the darkness within them, with their fears and desires, their secrets and passions. The only solace I can give you is that you need not linger on the reflections, and that the distance between your entrance and exit is short, about as short as you could possibly hope for. If you keep your wits about you, you won’t have to spend long here.”
From a pocket in his jacket, Roderick pulled out an alabaster pocket watch on a bronze chain that clinked softly as he laid it on the table. “Take this with you,” he said, sliding it toward Madeline, who took it gratefully. It was about four inches in diameter, looking and feeling oversized in Madeline’s palm. Opening it, she was surprised at what lay within – a pair of concentric wheels, each dotted with their own numbers finely etched into the clock face, running from zero at the top of the inner circle to one thousand at the top of the second circle. Six hands ticked away inside the watch, the movements of only one perceptible to Madeline’s eyes, moving more than three times slower than the second hand on a normal watch or clock.
“It tracks Universal Time,” Roderick said, showing that his wristwatch bore the same concentric circles and extra hands. “I’ll give you a time table for when exits are closing, and recommendations on how long each Location should take you.” He was already writing on a notepad as he spoke. “Sunset Square and Titan are the tightest, despite you having the most time for each of them – they’re simply huge Locations, Titan in particular, so be sure to move quickly and stick to paths that I’ll indicate on your maps.” As he finished that sentence, he tapped his pen once on each map and returned to writing on his notepad. Fine, softly glowing blue lines formed on each map, tracing a path from an entrance to an exit. Madeline studied the paths as Roderick wrote and spoke. “Your final three Locations, in terms of simple distance, could take you mere minutes. But you have other challenges in each that will test your ability to move swiftly. Keep your mind on the paths and the time, and you should be able to manage the journey.”
He finished writing, tearing out the sheet from his notepad and handing it to Madeline. On it were written each Location and both the maximum amount of time allowed to travel through each, as well as the specific times in Universal Time that their exits would be changing to brand new destinations. Her final destination, the exit from the Hall of Reflections, needed to be reached by 485:93:12. It was currently – it took her a moment to understand how to tell time on the pocket watch, but only a moment, it was surprisingly intuitive – 439:27:43. Slowly the quickest hand ticked forward to 439:27:44.
“If you have questions, please ask away,” Roderick said. “And also, you should take this.” As if on cue, Soren returned, bearing a rustic cloth satchel in which he placed the cloth bundle from earlier, along with a pair of what looked like bamboo cups lidded tightly, and a pouch that clinked with coins. He also carried an amulet, which he placed on the table. On a faded golden chain, its equally faded golden surface was etched with a fiery sun. Roderick opened the amulet, revealing within a dully glowing grey gemstone. “I noticed when Fae was first here that in her drawings was a sketch of the Orphan of the Dawn. I wish I had thought more quickly about that, but now that I’ve had time to ponder, I do believe she will have need of this.”
“What is it?” Madeline asked.
“A… keepsake, I suppose you would call it,” Roderick said. He snapped the amulet shut and handed it to Madeline. “Keep it safe, and give it to Fae when you see her. Remember that term: Orphan of the Dawn. She’ll have need of it there.”
Madeline nodded, standing up. She checked that all was well with her shoulder bag, and then slung the cloth satchel over her shoulder with it. The pocket watch she tucked in the pocket of her coat, fixing its chain to one of the buttons. She wouldn’t need to worry about it falling off – the entire coat was woven with magic, making it incredibly difficult to fray, tear, wear, or fall apart in any way.
I’m just glad it still fits after all these years.
Well, she designed it large at the time. Forward-thinking as always.
“No questions?” Roderick asked.
“None,” Madeline said, shaking her head. “I have a strict time limit, so I should start as soon as I can. I understand the time system, and I have maps with the paths marked clearly.” She smiled. “Thank you.”
“Not at all,” Roderick said. He carefully folded all of the maps except the one of Sunset Square, handing them all to Madeline. “Please, give my best to Fae. I hope her journey is going well. And I’m very glad she has you coming to her aid.”
They talked little more, as Roderick led the way outside and down a rocky path to the shore. As the tide came in, Madeline stepped forward at Roderick’s instruction…
And her foot landed in a whole new place.
The sky, white and strange over Cartographer’s Waystation, was now vivid gold, red, and orange, and the landscape around her was bathed with warm colors that cast long shadows.
What had been a calm, relaxing place with the soothing sound of the sea was now a bustling city, filled with the chatter of thousands of people rushing to and fro. Madeline had stepped right out into a square that was the home of some sort of festival – judging from the map, the place was called “Remembrance Square.” All around her were colorful pavilions and bold banners that proclaimed “Remembrance Day,” “For the Love of the Fallen,” and “Never Again.”
Madeline didn’t have time to ponder these things, as much as she wished to. Already she understood the challenge of her quest.
She was going to be seeing so many places that she’d never dreamed of, places she’d thought would only exist in fiction.
And yet she couldn’t linger.
I can’t explore. I have to not only pass through, but do so as quickly as I can.
Minding Roderick’s warning to keep her head down and avoid attention, Madeline didn’t break into a run. She walked swiftly, regularly adjusting her pace in tune with the general current of the crowded streets she followed. Continually checking her map, she found that, unlike at the Waystation, no names – not even her own – appeared on the map.
So I can’t see definitively where I am. I need to follow the map closely and not get lost for a moment.
Thankfully, she was on the right track. Checking and double-checking street names and the buildings she passed, she took the correct turns at each intersection.
She grew slightly short of breath after a few blocks, and slipped a hand into her pocket to grip the comforting handle of her Talisman.
A tiny bit of Enhancement Magic wouldn’t hurt, would it?
She didn’t push things – she still wasn’t used to Enhancement Magic – but felt the comforting flow of strength and endurance move through her. Her steps were lighter, her breathing easier.
It’s a very interesting city, though.
Sunset Square felt like it came out of some forgotten period of Earth’s history, with an old-timey feel enhanced by the grainy speakers from radio sets and gramophones playing music or talk shows and the classy style of dress everyone adopted. Hats were a common feature, and Madeline noticed she got more than a few stares – particularly from women her age and older – that lingered on the top of her head.
Well, I do have a few hats. But the method for retrieving them in this crowd would draw an awful lot of attention to myself.
There was a familiarity to Sunset Square, too – so much foot traffic with so few vehicles made it seem almost like home. People walked places, or hopped on the occasional trolley. There were dozens upon dozens of fascinating shops and restaurants – or at least they fascinated Madeline from the outside, and she cursed her luck that she couldn’t spare the time to duck inside – and constant traffic flowing in and out of them.
Two more blocks, and halfway to the Station, Madeline saw an incident occurring. A great deal of shouting was happening, and a crowd was encircling a spot against the wall of a towering business building. Madeline’s curiosity took hold then, and she pushed through to see what the fuss was about.
The first thing she noticed when she breached the crowd was graffiti on the brick wall: “LIFE.” It was spelled out in blue letters, but was in the process of being X’d out with red spray paint by a police officer wearing a blue suit and a tall bowler hat. Another officer was holding down a young man, perhaps a year or two younger than Madeline, and holding some sort of crystal up to his face.
“Just breathe, will ya?” the officer with the crystal asked gruffly, putting more of his weight on the young man’s back, making him wince. The man struggled mightily, but then suddenly exhaled, and the entire crowd around seemed to hold their breath at that action.
The blue crystal in the officer’s hands gleamed with red light, and the crowd gasped. Cries went up of “Human!” and “Arrest the monster!”
“Thought you could do whatever you want, eh?” the officer with the crystal asked, sighing as he tucked the crystal in his pocket, retrieving a pair of handcuffs.
Madeline took a deep breath, let it out.
Her hand in her pocket gripped her Talisman tightly.
Light flashed around her, and the crowd flinched away from her. In a spiral of dazzling ribbons of light, Madeline spoke in a loud, clear voice: “Butterfly Effect!”
Before the lights around her had faded, thousands of flashing, violet butterflies filled the air, darting towards the police officers and the right side of the crowd.
Panic erupted. People screamed in pain, collapsed to the ground, or went racing off into the distance. The two officers fell back, rubbing frantically at their eyes, rolling around on the street in a desperate, flailing manner.
Madeline stepped forward, now transformed. She wore a skintight purple-and-silver bodysuit, with the symbol of a raven in flight on her chest. Around her waist was a golden belt, and a purple, feathery cape billowed behind her in a sudden breeze. Her hair, once loose, was now tied back in a ponytail, and a feathered, angular mask hid the top half of her face.
“Stand aside!” she called out. She rushed to the fallen young man and held out her hand. “Come with me.”
“W-who are you?” the man asked, staring up at her with wide, awestruck blue eyes.
Madeline laughed. “I am Royal Raven! Evil fears my name, and wickedness cowers before my might! And I have come to save you.”
The man stared at her for a beat longer, then took her hand, allowing Madeline to pull him to his feet. She spread out her free arm, and her butterflies congregated at the right side of the crowd, which was steadily breaking apart. Now it fully emptied, with a mass panic forcing a wild, frenzied escape from the butterflies. Madeline raced ahead, pulling the man with her, Conjuring the map of the city and eyeing it for a moment before dismissing it.
A left turn, a right turn, two more lefts, a right, and… there!
Madeline stepped into a shadow, leaning against a wall and catching her breath. The man beside her gasped for air, dropping to his knees. He gazed about frantically, but there was no one around them.
“Seems like you’ll be safe for a spell,” Madeline said, grinning. She was still dressed as Royal Raven, and that meant she was Royal Raven.
It’s not just the clothes. When you take on a persona, you take on the entire part of that character.
So be this guy’s hero, for a little while longer. Then we can go.
And I really can’t wait to show this to Fae. She’s gonna love that our character is coming to life. Despite how kind of embarrassing it is.
“Thank you,” the man said, leaning his head back against the wall. “But you… what did you do to all those people? Are they okay?”
You’re worried about the people who called you a monster?
“They’re all fine,” Madeline said. She held out her hand, and a single violet butterfly sprang to being on it. “It’s a combination of Energy Magic and Illusion Magic. I make people think they’re in pain, or that there’s terrible danger. But I’ve already dismissed the butterflies. No harm came to them except the little they inflicted on themselves.”
“Clever,” the man said. “And gracious. I’m glad you use such methods.”
“And I’m glad to assist,” Madeline said, snapping her cape back and bowing dramatically. “Now, please do try to stay safe. I have places to be.”
“But how can you get away?” the man asked. “Me, I can kind of blend in, when I need to. But you, um…” He looked her up and down. “You stand out. A lot.”
As if I didn’t know that myself.
“I have my methods,” Madeline said. “There’s no need to worry about me. Now, farewell!”
She turned to go, but the man called out to her. “Who are you really?” he asked. “Where did you… come from? You’re a Human, right? And… I just… I feel like I should thank you more properly.”
Madeline looked back, flashing a grin. “Your safety is thanks enough,” she said. “Farewell!”
She dashed away, turning a corner and flashing with light just before she rejoined the crowd on the main streets.
All it took was a simple application of Conjuring and Manipulation Magic, an application she’d honed through tens of thousands of uses, and Madeline was neither Royal Raven nor Madeline Elizabeth Crowley when she returned to the hustle and bustle of Sunset Square. She now blended with the crowd quite well. She wore a long, slightly poofy violet dress underneath a black bolero jacket. Black heels with silver tracery on them click-clacked along with hundreds of other women’s footsteps. Her hair was done up in a fancy braided bun, and a wide-brimmed hat tilted slightly forward rested atop it. Her hands, clad in long, soft white gloves, held a purple parasol which she snapped open and tilted in the direction from which the sun’s rays approached.
Along with the costume change came a change in demeanor. Madeline walked taller, more carefully and gracefully. She adopted an air of mystique, a blend of mystery and ladylike poise.
Don’t just dress as a character. Become the character.
Such was the backbone of Madeline’s own blend of magics, uniquely devised thanks to her own creative endeavors. She created dozens of characters with pencils, ink, and paint – why not bring them to life more fully?
Royal Raven. Lady Felicity Adeline Montblanc IV.
And dozens more.
Madeline couldn’t hold back a small smile, though she kept it in line with the “vague, mysterious” way in which Lady Montblanc IV would smile.
After all, she wasn’t, at the moment, Madeline Crowley.
Once more she Conjured up the map of Sunset Square, ever so briefly.
That was all she needed. She was on the right track. And after two more right turns, she saw it: Sunset Station. Situated at the center of a huge, bustling intersection, a meeting of more than eight major streets all in one place, the Station was a grand building with an entrance wide enough for dozens to enter and exit side-by-side. Down Lady Montblanc IV went, fishing daintily into her purse for the proper coinage for her train fare. She purchased a ticket for Titan Rail, destination: Titan’s Belt. She didn’t snap her parasol shut until she boarded her train, taking a seat near the door, tilting her hat slightly forward so as to subtly indicate to others that she wasn’t to be bothered.
The train’s doors hissed shut, and Titan Rail started along the tracks. When it left the darkness of the subterranean station, Madeline couldn’t help but break character and display surprise – gratefully hidden by her hat – at the sights she saw through the windows.
They had to be rolling along through outer space. There was no other explanation for the wheeling spirals of stars, the trails of distant galaxies, the bulky marble-like forms of planets, the flash of comets and nebulae.
It was many minutes later when Madeline finally remembered to check her watch. 440:02:36. Comparing that to her charts, she was making excellent time.
I was supposed to get through Sunset Square by 442:23:23.
I hope this means I have plenty of time to make it through Titan. Considering I have until 470:65:00 and he called that “tight,” I can get a small sense of just how long it’ll take.
She let out a soft, contained sigh.
I’m coming, Fae. One little bit at a time.
When the train pulled into the station at Titan’s Belt, Madeline’s train car was empty, and she didn’t emerge as Lady Felicity Adeline Montblanc IV, but as herself. Like Sunset Station, the station here at Titan’s Belt was underground. Madeline followed the signs through a smaller, darker station than Sunset Station. Shafts of light shone down here and there through small skylights, and in those gleaming beams faint, swirling clouds of dust could be seen.
Eventually came stairs that led up and out, and Madeline emerged into bright yellow sunlight. She shielded her eyes against the glare for a moment, making a face at the taste of sandy dirt in her mouth. Where she’d stopped was in the way of traffic into, out from, and past the station, so she stepped aside, hugging the wall.
As her eyes adjusted, she found herself gaping.
She must have been miles high in the air, looking out across a vast ocean that rested far, far below her. The space in front of the station was actually rather cramped, going forward only about twenty feet on sandy rock before ending at a precipitous cliff barred off by a simple, far too easily bypassed metal railing.
Madeline walked forward to the railing, leaning against it and staring down. The rocky cliff she was on was rounded and smooth, carved at gargantuan scale like the massive belt of a warrior. Below that the rock formed into an armored sort of skirt, like that of ancient soldiers, and muscular legs the size of mountains went down to the sea, stretching out into sandaled feet, the toes and heel a coastline.
And into all that rock were stairs and elevators, carts running along rail systems, roads and bridges, and innumerable buildings of all sorts. People gathered by the hundreds down on the Titan’s feet, barely specks to Madeline’s eyes.
When she turned around, leaning her hips back against the railing and staring up, she saw the great rocky colossus extend upward, his bulging abdominal and chest muscles noticeable through stony armor, his head carrying a dignified sort of angle, even if his face was largely worn away. The left arm was muscular and steady, bearing a shield at an angle which carried an entire sloped city of its own. The right arm looked as if it had once borne a sword, but was broken off halfway down the forearm. Looking back below, Madeline saw that there was an island farther out from the feet, a great hand with a sword, flat side up, upon which was yet another city, and great docks. Ships and boats of all sizes went to and from the hand and foot, and also farther out into the sea, towards the unknown horizon.
The longer Madeline looked, the easier it was to make out the different cities of Titan. The right foot was more heavily populated than the left, parts of which had crumbled into the sea. The left knee was its own city, as was most of the right thigh. Between the legs many gondolas on cables ran left to right.
Here on Titan’s Belt, the chatter was immense, and as Madeline started to finally move through the city, she saw just how populous it was. All of the stone of Titan was sandy, dusty, and oddly smooth, though colors showed subtle changes, ranging from a pale yellow to a reddish-brown. Most buildings were constructed out of the stone itself rather than built upon it, and those that were built of different materials, it became clear, acquired those materials from extensive mining operations carved into and throughout Titan’s interior. Madeline saw many shafts vanishing into Titan’s stomach, and though they were wide enough to consume entire mansions on Grimoire, they were but tiny cavities against the vast, immeasurable bulk of the mountain of a statue these shafts tunneled through. Out from Titan’s interior came jewels and gemstones, marble-like hunks of pearly whiteness, glittering obsidian blocks, and unrefined clumps of metallic ore ranging from a coppery red to a dull, chalky silver.
The city of Titan’s Belt was heavily vertical in its construction and layout, and Madeline climbed more stairs in her first half hour here than she did during an entire week back home. When she stopped to take a breather at a spacious, round balcony decorated with potted flowers and shrubs, she pulled out her pocket watch and checked the time.
The train ride took up more time than I’d hoped. And now I know why Meister Roderick was so concerned about the time it would take to climb Titan. I feel like I haven’t made any progress at all, and I’m already tired, even with Enhancement Magic helping me out.
She let out a long sigh and then fished in her satchel for one of the bamboo cups. Nearly a foot tall, each held a surprising amount of water, and they sealed tight while being easy to open. She popped up the lid and took a sip, fighting the urge to gulp it down.
It’s hot here. I’m not properly dressed for this.
Another sigh, and Madeline touched her pocketed Talisman. Her clothes and hair flashed briefly, transforming into a more adequate outfit for climbing the dusty, hot mountain of cities she found herself in: a tee shirt, capris, and hiking boots, with her hair tying itself back in a ponytail.
Not a character. Just summer hiking Madeline.
Another sip of water, and then she put the cup back and started on again.
No one even noticed my little transformation. But then again…
People around here don’t seem to pay much mind to anyone at all.
Everyone was bustling along, always in a hurry, climbing or descending. There was lots of talk, but Madeline soon noticed it was heavily localized – parents and children talking to each other, friends conversing, a boss yelling at his employees and the employees returning the favor. But despite all the chatter, people were largely talking because they needed to, to the people they needed to talk to.
A stranger like Madeline was a ghost.
Or she was until she reached another balcony and took another break. Sitting on a stone bench, leaning against the balcony’s carved rail, letting the sea wind cool her off, she pulled out the cloth-wrapped bundle of food to see what she had available for calming her rumbling stomach.
“This your first time to Titan?” asked a voice. Madeline looked up to see an elderly man seated on the bench next to her. He was totally bald, his head and face heavily tanned and gnarled with wrinkles. Over his left eye was a black eyepatch, while his right eye gleamed pale blue as he grinned.
“Yes,” Madeline said. She saw that her food bundle was stocked with sandwiches cut into triangular halves, and took out one half, biting into it.
“Nice to have visitors around these parts,” the old man said, staring off into the distance. “Must be strange though, having no one pay you any mind. But that’s just how we are around here. ‘Til you get to be my age, you don’t trouble with anyone you don’t need to. It’s a busy life here, especially ‘round the Torso.”
Madeline nodded, finishing off her sandwich half fairly quickly and following it up with a modest gulp of water.
“Where you headed?” the old man asked.
“The Crown,” Madeline said.
“Ooh,” the old man said, his one eye going wide. “Quite a trek ahead. Take care, follow the signs, and don’t lose your way. And enjoy yourself.” He massaged his legs, groaning. “Eventually you get to a point where you can’t make those kinds of trips. I sure do miss the view from the Crown…”
Madeline nodded politely, packing her things and continuing on. She checked the map to ensure she was on the right track, and then checked her watch.
Still a lot to the Belt, too.
She found that her path moved steadily around Titan’s abdominal section as she climbed, and her next break was leaning against a rail on a wider stretch of road not quite a quarter of the way up Titan’s back. The sun was starting to fade ever so gently, coming near to touching the horizon.
A sip of water, and a check of the time.
According to her map, she was still in Titan’s Belt, even though the Belt itself was thousands of feet below her. That same city was a vast one, rising up and coiling in on itself, including many stretches through Titan’s interior – she saw a few roads along the way that went through tunnels into interior housing spaces lit by gaseous lanterns.
I can probably reach the Spine in… two more stops?
Let’s try to do it with only one.
She did try, and succeeded, and her legs and lungs hated her for it. The road had grown steeper, always sloping upward if it wasn’t rising in narrow, tightly packed, and outrageously steep staircases. There were fewer people here around Titan’s back, less buildings, and less balconies, too. Part of why she only took one break was because she never did find another place to sit down until she reached the start of Titan’s Spine itself.
By the time she made it, she wasn’t only exhausted, but starving, as well. The sun had dipped behind the horizon, only half of it visible now, and a golden, reddish glow was suffusing the air. The entrance to Titan’s Spine was, thankfully, a large open space, sort of a giant balcony that also functioned as a city square. Multiple canopied stalls were open for business hocking a variety of wares, much of it related to stones – jewelry, carven figurines, tools, and the like. Madeline took a seat at the far edge of the balcony, retrieving her food and, after another half of a sandwich, looking to see if there was anything other than the exact same sandwich ad infinitum.
There was, thankfully. A half dozen fruits were also included, something akin to apples with a smooth, spherical shape, but a bluish color no apples on Earth had. She bit into one and came away relishing the juicy burst of flavor and moisture. It was sweet and tart at once, and a welcome sort of dessert after a sandwich. She didn’t need much water after she finished the blue apple-like fruit, either, its own moisture having helped replenish her very effectively.
After eating, she checked the time.
That took up far more time than I’d hoped. And judging from the maps, Titan’s Spine is straightforward, but…
She looked up at the formidable trek ahead of her.
It’s almost a sheer vertical climb. And no elevators, even though I’ve seen elevators elsewhere.
I only have eighteen more… “hours”? What do they call the biggest number in Universal Time?
It took nine just to get here. I need to move faster.
Does that mean I don’t have time to sleep? This is a longer journey than I realized at first, and it was past midnight when I arrived at the Waystation, and I’m not much of a night owl, and I didn’t sleep on the train because I was afraid of missing my stop…
I jumped into things without thinking. And Enhancement Magic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – or I haven’t figure it out properly yet. It’s great for feats of acrobatics and strength, but for enhancing my endurance it seems to be a lot less potent.
Well. I just have to keep going, don’t I?
She shivered at the sea breeze. The sky was growing darker, and the temperature was swiftly dropping.
What do I wear now?
For the moment, she decided not to waste more time and just start on ahead. She could change her clothes with a single effortless application of magic, after all. She should see how difficult the journey ahead was before bundling up too much.
Through the balcony-like square she climbed a modest slope under an arching canopy of stone. Lanterns dangling above her shed dim, whitish light. At the top of the slope was the start of the great stairway up the Spine.
Madeline stared at it for a moment. Took a deep breath in, let it out.
One foot in front of the other, she climbed. The stairs were empty of people, and Madeline climbed alone, flanked by tall, bent street lamps shining with light. The night air was cold, and she realized she really couldn’t keep going without dressing at least a little warmer. She pulled out her Talisman – a long-handled, fine-bristle paintbrush – and twirled it in her fingers, contemplating what to change into.
With a flourish, she brought the twirling to a stop and tucked the paintbrush back in her pocket. A flash of light transformed her attire and hair. She now wore a long, blue coat that was buttoned up through the high collar, which rose cozily around her mouth and back of her neck. Her hair was done up in a neat, functional bun, atop which she wore a blue marching band style hat with a silver crest of a raven carrying a shield. Her capris were traded for long pants tucked into high black boots.
She walked now with a confident, determined poise, projecting an indomitable will and a steely-eyed focus on the task at hand.
Captain Leia von Stralheim of the starship Aurelia.
She hadn’t just bundled up against the cold, but adopted just the right character for the job at hand, a starship captain in a far-flung alternate future who was known for her unflinching dedication to seeing her treacherous journey through to its completion.
It was easy to break character when one was tired and sore, and Madeline did so on multiple occasions, though usually in good ways. She giggled, multiple times, giddy from exhaustion and from the fact that she had a very cozy coat that, by virtue of buttoning up past her mouth, allowed her nose and cheeks to be warmed by her breath. When she stopped to eat and drink, she giggled again at the silly picture of the serious Captain Leia von Stralheim eating a triangle-cut sandwich half. When she checked the time at her second brief stop, she giggled at the arrangement of the numbers.
She looked down from her dizzying height and felt buoyed by the sight of just how far she’d climbed. When she touched the paintbrush Talisman in her pocket, felt that pulse of Enhancement Magic, she felt hopeful that she could keep going. When she looked at the map of Titan’s Spine, she had no landmarks to work from – it was just a constant, ever-climbing staircase – but had a sense that she was making proper, speedy progress.
She stopped three more times, twice for water, and the third time to check the time once more.
She looked up the stairs, peering from beneath the brim of Captain Leia von Stralheim’s hat at the distance left to cover. It was hard to tell in the darkness of night, seeing only the dreamlike trail of lights showing the way ever higher, ever higher, ever higher. Checking the maps, she looked ahead to Titan’s Crown and the distance to her exit.
Eight more “hours” left. Just keep climbing. You’re getting there. The Crown isn’t too big.
Though you will miss out on the view, probably, unless the sun rises quickly.
That’s okay. I’d rather see the most amazing sights with Fae than alone.
She didn’t giggle so much anymore, exhaustion creeping in. More than once she swayed on her feet and frantically grasped for the railing. Looking down, she knew she didn’t want to fall.
She probably wouldn’t be able to break her fall on such steep stairs until she hit the very bottom.
Her marching climb had turned into a trudge. She still hadn’t seen anyone else but her on these endless stairs.
She took a break to eat, having just one of the blue apples before continuing on.
The time was 464:22:33.
Above her, the long trail of lights looked like fairies dancing in the night. Below her, the same.
It was much later that a faint glow caught Madeline’s attention. She looked behind her, and out at the edge of sight, lighting up the fringes of the horizon, were the first hints of sunrise.
The glimpse of sunrise lit something within Madeline, and she pushed forward eagerly. It wasn’t much longer that the lamp posts turned out their lights, and she was lit from behind by the yellow sun. As she looked up…
She saw hope.
The stairs came to an end, and there was nothing above them. She hurried forward, and as she reached the top of the stairs…
She gazed out in wonder.
The whole world seemed to lay before her. An endless ocean, so far below her, and stretching out so far beyond, into eternity.
She stood at Titan’s Crown, the highest point of this towering Location. She pulled out her map of the Crown, and for the first time realized why she’d had to take such a route.
There were no other paths up to or down from the Crown.
The answer would have to wait, perhaps forever. Checking her watch, Madeline hurried forward.
The time was 469:98:12.
Up on the flat Crown, the buildings were sparse and scattered out wide from each other, giving the place a whole different feeling from the tightly packed, vertical layout of the cities below. And up here it was so quiet, with people going about their business in a sedate, relaxed manner.
What makes everything so different here from below?
She passed through a wide, circular square that housed a two-tiered fountain which sprayed glistening, crystalline water high into the air, to then fall down in an umbrella to gently water the basins below.
A left turn, then a right, down a wide alley, and out into a clear place dotted with potted flowers and shrubs. She checked the map.
Her destination was right before her.
One last glance at her pocket watch showed she’d made it in time. 469:99:05.
Two steps forward…
And Madeline stepped into a whole new world.