When Delilah stepped through the boundary separating Lilac Hill from the Starlight Spires, she was pummeled by a sense of complete wonderment.
True to its name, stars filled the sky above and around her. Delilah had camped in the mountains around Grimoire and stared up at the sky at night, with stars unobscured by city lights. It had been beautiful and wondrous.
This was beyond Delilah’s imagination. There must have been hundreds, maybe thousands, more stars than could be seen on a clear night on Earth. The night shone with twinkling brilliance that brought a smile to Delilah’s face.
“There’s so many,” Chelsea said, echoing Delilah’s thoughts.
“Watch your step,” Gwen cautioned. “I know the sky is beautiful, but we seem to have arrived on one of the more dangerous bridges.”
That got Delilah to look down and around at her physical surroundings. She stood on a metal bridge that seemed perfectly stable and well-structured. The only problem was… there were no railings. One wrong step, and Delilah would fall right off of the bridge. Peering out over the edge, it was clearly a long drop down. And looking down, Delilah got a sense of why “Spires” was in the name of this Location.
The entire place was a city made up of towers floating in space – the starry sky wasn’t just up above, but also down below, as if there were no ground anywhere. These towers came in many different sizes, shapes, and colors, and at varying heights – some towers had their bottom floors at the same height as another’s roof. Very few of the spires were tall enough to start at what Delilah assumed was the bottom and extend all the way up to the tallest point of the city. They were all connected by long bridges of varying sizes and styles. Many of those bridges had very clear guardrails to prevent pedestrians from falling over the edge.
“Watch yourself,” Lorelei said to Isabelle, taking the girl’s hand. Isabelle looked up at her, smiling at Lorelei’s reassuring presence.
“Let’s get somewhere safer,” Chelsea said. “There’s a balcony on the other side.”
Together, the five girls walked along the bridge to the opposite side, finding refuge at a stone balcony with low walls as protective edges. Isabelle let out a weary sigh, making it clear she’d been very tense on the walk over.
“Where do we go?” Delilah asked, bracing herself against a low wall as she leaned out and continued to survey the starlit city. “It’s… huge. There could be millions of people living here.” She could see many walking around, on bridges, through windows on different towers, or on rooftop gardens and other balconies like the ones the girls stood on.
“The number of permanent residents is surprisingly small from what I remember,” Gwen said. Her golden eyes seemed silver in the starry light. “About ten thousand make their homes here. But the number of visitors and tourists continued to grow, so the city grew to accommodate them.”
“So there must be a lot of things to do here,” Chelsea said, grinning. “I wish we could take our time.”
“We could spend years here and not see or do everything,” Gwen said, laughing. “Last I visited, I stayed for several months and still felt like there was so much more to do.”
“It’s kind of high-tech,” Delilah said, noticing neon signs flashing here and there. Through a window of the nearest spire, she saw someone typing away on an old, bulky desktop computer. “At least compared to what we’ve seen so far.”
“Technology is an interesting thing in the Dominion,” Gwen said. “Since magic is so prevalent, there are many Locations and people who just don’t bother much with technology, only developing as far as necessary. Many mages from Earth – those that know about the Enchanted Dominion, anyway – make Starlight Spires their main vacation destination, so there’s been quite a bit of transfer of technology.” She shrugged, laughing. “I guess the short story is that technology’s really more of a human endeavor.”
“Where’s our destination?” Delilah asked. “And how much can we see before we leave?”
“Yeah, I wanna check the place out as much as possible,” Chelsea said.
“We’ll be heading to Millennium Vista,” Gwen said, pointing.
“It’s hard to miss,” Delilah said, staring. In the midst of the many spires of competing heights and widths, a true behemoth of a tower took up the center of the city. Its bottom floor was the lowest of all the towers, and its roof was so high up that the tower must have thousands of floors – maybe even tens of thousands. While many of the spires adopted darker hues and reflective surfaces to make them appear like a part of the starry sky all around, Millennium Vista was pearly white, and shone with many lights of its own.
“No more weird gaps between trees or obscure steps into nowhere,” Chelsea said. “We’re heading to the main attraction.”
“It’s pretty far,” Isabelle said. Lorelei had picked her up piggyback style so the girl could see, and she looked rather glum as she stared at the white, shining tower. “Can we make it?”
Gwen turned away from the view, to a door that led in from the balcony. “We’ll be fine,” she said with a smile. She pulled back her sleeve, checking her watch. “We have about ten Earth hours. More than enough time.”
So the girls began their journey. The tower which housed the balcony they came in from was quite small and rather run-down. Cobbled together from wood, stone, and metals of many different types, they descended a spiraling staircase that creaked with every step. Most of the doors they passed were boarded up, and the one window along their descent was cracked, letting the wind whistle through its slim openings.
“Seems like we arrived in the slums,” Chelsea said, frowning at their surroundings.
“Slums imply that people live here,” Gwen said. “This is one of the few abandoned spires. As construction constantly continues, some areas of the city simply lose their relevance. Don’t worry. It isn’t far to more welcoming environments.”
Six floors down, the girls stepped out through a doorway with no door, crossing another bridge with no guardrails. Isabelle clung to Lorelei’s hand, while Delilah had to stare at her feet as she walked. There was simply too much to look at, and she was too easily distracted, to trust herself to walk safely along any other way.
This bridge led to an outdoor stairway around a blocky stone spire, and the girls continued to descend. Keeping one hand on the railing, Delilah stared out at the city around her.
She’d seen pictures of larger cities, and had even visited Chicago once. She thought she knew about vertical cityscapes, but this was something entirely different. There were no vehicles whatsoever – all traffic was by foot. The largest bridge Delilah could see was a well-lit pathway that led directly to Millennium Vista, seemingly wide enough for dozens of people to walk side by side. Otherwise, most of these crossings were like a one lane city street or narrower, and they rarely covered a lot of horizontal ground.
No, the focus was on the towers – and “Spires” was a much more apt descriptor for them. Delilah had read somewhere that the tallest building in the world had one hundred and sixty-three floors. While Millennium Vista already completely dwarfed Delilah’s perception of how tall a single building could be – and even dwarfed the mountains around Grimoire – with its thousands of floors, most of the spires, by Delilah’s reckoning, had several hundreds of floors, and quite a few easily had a thousand.
The architects of these spires were tremendously creative. Delilah spotted many completely open floors, without walls or windows at all. Balconies were a constant fixture, providing reprieves from the frantic inner-spire life while also breaking up the skyline and keeping the constant towers from blending together in Delilah’s vision. There were rooftop gardens and pools and outdoor cinemas and stages, and yet the roofs weren’t the only locations of wide-open entertainment.
Crossing the next bridge, the girls passed through an entire indoor zoo that in no way felt like it was indoors. The ceiling was painted and lit to look like the starry sky outside, and with very few walls or windows around the perimeter, it felt like a small outdoor zoo. And the animals were fascinating. Delilah spotted some she recognized – zebras, hippos, boa constrictors, and mountain lions – but most were completely new to her. There was a bird with rainbow plumage that seemed to shimmer and shine, changing colors as it moved. When they passed its enclosure, Delilah marveled at just how large the bird was. It towered over her, and as she stepped up to the glass, the bird lowered its head, fixing its pitch-black eyes on her.
An enclosure with several small, excitable birds with dozens of wings became even more excited when Chelsea passed by. Her owl Summon still declined to leave the physical realm, perching himself on Chelsea’s shoulders, and the small birds were very excited by the sight of him. They flitted here and there, squawking and chirping and singing. Chelsea’s Summon, for his part, simply cocked his head to the side, watching them with what seemed to be bemusement.
There was a petting zoo area, where children laughed as they held, petted, and played with a variety of small, adorable, fluffy animals. One of the animals glowed blue and chased its tail, reminding Delilah of Shana and Altair.
Leaving the small zoo behind, Delilah finally felt like they were actually in the city. This next bridge had guardrails and lamp posts, and several potted plants were fixed to the rails. Most were dark-colored flowers that seemed to fit right in to the starry light all around. Even the lighting elements used, from neon signs to lamp posts, was designed to preserve and accentuate the natural lighting of the Starlight Spires. Nothing was very bright, and there was no single, overpowering light source in the sky like the sun, so while Delilah could see perfectly well, it all felt rather mysterious and dreamlike. No one cast much of a shadow, and it was very strange to be able to see so much color and not have to strain her eyes in a place where it was perpetually nighttime.
The crowds began to grow, and Delilah took up one of her favorite hobbies: people-watching. It was one thing observing the citizens of Grimoire in their daily lives, but now Delilah was engrossed. These were completely foreign people to her, with completely foreign customs and fashion sense, in a completely foreign city. It was all utterly fascinating.
The fashion was very focused on shimmering, subtly reflective materials that could blend into the light. Colors seemingly changed with each movement and depending on where people stood. Men and women both often wore short capes that wrapped around their shoulders, and Delilah didn’t see a single man who didn’t wear a hat. Most were angled in a triangular sort of shape, short and unobtrusive with a subtle brim, though she also spotted several rounded hats in a few different shapes. The female fashion of Starlight Spires appeared to be short, black or white dresses, with the primary source of color coming from their stockings and heels.
And as Delilah absorbed this visual information, she also began to notice an absence of children. Looking back along the bridge they’d just crossed, she saw only adults. Descending another flight of stairs, she saw only adults. Wandering through an orderly computer shop, she saw only adults.
As she continued to scan for youngsters, Delilah began to notice that their group stood out, and they didn’t go unnoticed by those they passed. But while the girls’ clothing stood out in most places, Delilah usually found that the adults who noticed the group focused on two people: herself and Isabelle.
Are kids really that rare here? Delilah wondered, feeling tiny beads of dread begin to roll around in the back of her mind. Even so, her discomfort didn’t grow much more, because there was simply so much new and unfamiliar to take in.
Gwen led them up six stories to Borland’s Bibliography, a place that Delilah could only describe as a book parlor. It wasn’t a library or a bookshop – there weren’t nearly enough books for that. The space was mostly dedicated to comfortable seating, with lush carpeted floors dotted with cushioned leather sofas and armchairs. Bookshelves sparsely dotted the place, and a counter on the left side served as a drink bar.
“Thirsty?” Gwen asked, taking a seat at the bar. “My treat.”
“What do they have?” Delilah asked, hopping up onto a bar stool next to Gwen.
“Juice mixtures, mostly,” said the bartender. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up, and there was a small hand towel sticking out of the pocket of his waistcoat. “What would you like?”
Delilah scanned the menu, and her eyes settled on a delightful combination. “I’ll have the apple-peach-kiwi blend, please,” she said. Chelsea, Lorelei, and Isabelle joined them, and everyone ordered and took their drinks to a pair of sofas around a low table.
“You need places to kick back like this,” Chelsea said with a sigh. “When there are no elevators and your entire city is built around vertical space, it’s easy to get worn out.”
“You weren’t using Enhancement Magic?” Lorelei asked.
“I don’t use it for trivial things like stairs,” Chelsea said. “Besides, you and I are the only ones with it. I don’t want Delilah and Isabelle and Gwen to suffer alone.”
“It’s not so bad,” Delilah said, smiling. “I’ve been so amazed by all the different sights and sounds that I hardly notice all the climbing.”
Isabelle hummed her agreement, but didn’t speak, bouncing in her seat as she happily gulped down her juice. Delilah quite enjoyed her own juice, as well – she’d have to remember this place.
“Say, Gwen,” Delilah said. “I’ve noticed something strange about this place.”
“No children, right?” Chelsea asked. She frowned. “Yeah, I noticed, too. It’s weirding me out.”
“Well…” Gwen started, sighing. “There are only two laws in Starlight Spires. First, all form of harming another person, either bodily or through damage or theft of property, is completely forbidden. And the second law… I think there’s a similar phrase on Earth: ‘children should be seen but not heard.’ Here, it’s more like ‘children should not be seen or heard outside of home or school.’”
“But… why?” Delilah asked. “What’s so wrong about children?”
Gwen pursed her lips. “Children are seen here as chaotic and disruptive,” she said. “We won’t get in trouble – the law about children only goes for Starlight Spires residents, and we’re very clearly visitors – but I can’t say it’s a law I’m fond of. There are many who live and work here that disagree with it as well, but, unlike many other places and governments, the laws here cannot be changed. There is no adding to the law, and there is no subtracting from it.”
“I can get on board with the first law,” Chelsea said, “but come on. Disruptive and chaotic? Those aren’t always bad things. If a kid isn’t disruptive and chaotic, that’s a problem in itself. And a perfectly orderly life is no fun.”
“Will we get in any trouble or cause any problems?” Lorelei asked.
Gwen shook her head. “Not as long as we obey the first law,” she said. “And that should be perfectly easy.”
“Kids can be great,” Chelsea said. “Right, Isabelle?”
Isabelle lowered her glass, staring at Chelsea. “What?” she asked. “Sorry, I was busy.”
Lorelei laughed. “Busy with what?” she asked.
Isabelle giggled, pointing to the right wall of the parlor. “Isn’t that picture funny?” she asked.
A single painting hung on the wall, depicting a heavily caricatured man slipping on a banana peel. Delilah could only look at it for a few moments before she started giggling, looking away.
“Well, I guess there is one drawback to kids,” Chelsea said with a smirk. “They have such a lame sense of humor.”
Finishing off their drinks, the girls left Borland’s Bibliography, heading across a bridge with a dark blue canvas covering over the top, and dim blue lighting within lending a calming atmosphere. Delilah was delighted, ignoring the puzzled stares by passersby as she walked along with a smile on her face. There may be strange laws about children, but Delilah was in a brand new and wonderful place – they had a book parlor, something Grimoire really should hurry up and invent – and she wasn’t going to let some grumpy kid-hating adults ruin her fun.
“What’s this place?” Chelsea asked. Stepping off of the blue bridge, they were on an outer walkway of a spire with rounded walls. Their walkway led around several openings to a lobby with white floors, walls, and ceiling. Inside, uniformed employees rushed here and there with stacks of paper or boxes, while others stood behind counters dealing with customers and stamping items.
“It’s a message center,” Gwen said. “You can send letters and packages and other sorts of mail from here to anywhere in the entire universe. There are only a few in the entire Dominion, and this one is probably the most prominent and reputable.”
Suddenly, Lorelei pulled Isabelle back behind a wall, motioning for the others to follow her lead. Ducking out of sight, Delilah looked at Lorelei questioningly, surprised at the look of high alert on her face. Following her gaze, Delilah looked into the message center, and she understood almost instantly.
Standing at one of the counters, speaking with an employee, was the dangerous woman Delilah had hoped to never see again.
It was Anastasia.