by Tom K. Loney and Christina Lea

Chapter 2, by Tom K. Loney

Cutter took a moment to look at the Citadel of Tinkerology as they crossed over the ridge of the last hill of their journey. Behind him the priest-warrior Nemo rode in silence as Sash the Green and Mousehide carried on an argument that had started more than a few leagues before. It was smaller than he expected. The warrior had imagined a tall tower, at least as tall as the great redwood trees that grew along the coasts of western Isun. He had pictured it to be an off-white color that would gleam against the sun. Billowing clouds would shift lazily in the background while its many banners flapped in the breeze.

To be fair, the day was cloudy and there was no wind to speak of. That still did not ease his sense of disappointment when he saw a small village with well-established but un-stoned roads leading out from its center, and the occasional two-to-three storied building and supporting sheds built up along the dirt road. Here and there in the distance, he could see taller and more oddly-shaped structures - an oval, a pyramid, and a couple siege machine-looking things to name a few - but no bastion of otherworldly meta-magical innovation.

"You happy to be in your homeland?" Sash the sorceress stopped her bickering to poke fun at Nemo, her other favorite pastime, it would seem.

"My home country is in Namar, wizard." Nemo replied without turning. "I serve here. It's work. I am sure you've heard of a job before."

"Reminds me of a shipyard that I saw in Amar once." Mousehide jumped in.

"Aye." Nemo nodded. "We build ships of our own here."

"You have to drag them overland, or do you teleport them magically to their destinations?" Sash asked, actually not teasing in the slightest.

Cutter noticed the holy warrior smiling at that. Nemo kept his tone even and not sardonic, though. "Oh our ships carry themselves where they need to go."

With that the religious soldier straightened his back, a signal for his horse to begin to trot, moving to the head of the group. "You'll understand more when we get to the main campus."

Cutter unconsciously held his horse back just a bit, to allow their escort to take the lead. "Surely, a curious and interesting day ahead for all of us." He said to no one in particular.

The wizards, both master and adept, were a pathetic lot to say the least. As they began to ride from the trail onto one of the major roads to the compound, Cutter noticed that there were no common folk around. Instead, the spell-casters had to fend for themselves, often wearing ill-fitting craftsman clothing, like a leather apron or a baker's scarf, and going about their chores as just that, grungy work. Every now and then, a fully robed wizard with a sense of importance about himself or herself would appear to take in the newcomers, then get back to whatever deep thinking the magus had been preoccupied with before, suddenly worried about seeming to loaf while everyone else was working.

Just as Cutter began to be reminded of a farm, if still a bigger farm than he had ever seen, Nemo spoke up. "This is our argichemy area, where the Citadel focuses on food-growing and livestock husbandry." He said, then pointed. "We're headed to the Stargazers' manor, just down this road and up that hill."

On top of the hill that the paladin pointed to was one of the strange structures that Cutter had noticed earlier. It could have been a temple, as it was large, circular, and probably three-stories high, made of marble, then it had a domed-roof, of smoothed limestone with what appeared to be a rectangular opening worked into the curve of it. Currently, the opening was closed with ill-fitting wooden shutters, but it had to be a window. He figured it must be a landing area for gargoyles or other flying magical creatures, since Nemo had mentioned flying ships earlier.

Where do you tie the floating longboats? The warrior almost asked, but decided it was better to keep his mouth shut. He'd seen no signs of floating ships of what-has-one since they had approached the Citadel of Tinkerology. There had to be something more to what Nemo had said earlier.

"Not a decent tavern in the whole place, from what I can tell." Sash said loudly from behind him.

Nemo deigned not to answer. Cutter took a breath then said, "I'm sure your bookish colleagues here have a Hole-in-the-Wall somewhere to practice alchemy if nothing else."

Mousehide laughed, probably relieved at some revelry of familiar voices in this rather strange place. "They have enough wheat to brew beer for storm giants, I'm sure we'll find a beverage someplace."

With this round of comments, the group started to ascend the hill of the strangely domed building and the shacks around it.


 Upon entering the Stargazers' manor through an ivy-laden wooden gateway arch without any sort of fence or anything else to mark its perimeter, a youngish wizard in neat, proper sorcerer's robes looked up from his position at a watchtower to ring a small iron bell. The repeated clanging brought a few more than a dozen other robed wizards. Cutter noticed that there weren't many craftsman-clad among them.

Ah the cream of the butter-churn, he thought to himself.

In the center of the reception committee was a tall human wizard, rather robust in frame with more than a few scars across his face. Most notably, he had a golden nose-piece, the sort of prosthetic that warriors used after losing their nose in a fight. The warrior couldn't help but be impressed by the man's not frowning, not smiling reception of him, Sash, and Mousehide.

Beside the scarred wizard stood a dwarf dressed like an iron smith. This one didn't carry himself like he had been slaving away at mundane chores all day, though. He was a proud and knowledgeable wizard, as comfortable in his soot and grime as most wizards are in silk.

Typical dwarf, laughed Cutter to himself. Even the wizards are made of tin.

Coming up on the other side of the golden-nosed wizard was a dark-skinned elf, probably from the plains of Sakharia by her dress. She carried herself with the same purpose and privilege as the other two.

One always needs an elf, Cutter thought.

Nemo brought his horse to a halt and casually handed its reins to an unimpressive looking wizardling to his side. He nodded to the golden-nosed one before beginning to dismount.

"Welcome, Captain of the Guard." Golden-nose said with a return nod. "I see that you completed your assignment in a very timely manner."

"My lord Coppernik," The warrior-priest made a salute by touching his sword's hilt and pulling it to his side after dismounting. "Here we have the esteemed and capable adventurers of great fame. Culthwaite, the swordsman, who likes to be called 'Cutter.' Salisha the indomitable Green Sorceress. And the ever even-keeled Mousehide, not the Hidden Mouse, as we had heard from elsewhere, the arch-rogue of Pel."

Cutter almost was embarrassed by such a formal introduction, then he met the golden-nosed gaze of Coppernik, who seemed to know how he felt as he nodded to each of the adventurers to say, "Pleased to meet you, masters. Let's move indoors. You must be tired and hungry after your journey to our humble college."


The meal had been something of a celebration, or a flat out bribe before the corrupting favor had been posed. Quail and roasted pig, with all sorts of breadcrumb porridge with gravies, along with brussels sprouts, and carrots. The cooks were not stingy with the onions or garlic, either. Some sort of curry spice was thrown on top of some egg-yielding chickens, which tasted a lot like snake to Cutter. Dessert consisted of chicken egg custard sweetened with rhubarb or beet and covered with caramelized cream, served with the thick hot coffee the lands Isun and Namar were known for. The elf wizard from Sakharia had introduced herself as Fye Thagarus, the Counting Sorceress, and had reclined between Mousehide and Cutter on the plush pillows that lined the food tables in the high-ceilinged feasting hall. Her perfume added to the pleasure of the on-going meal for the two men. The hall's luxurious trappings helped eased some of the tension for both the swordsman and the rogue as they had expected austere settings, akin to what one imagines for monks and such.

Sash, for all of her grumbling about the Wizards' Guild and any wizards who formed citadels, was on her best behavior. She hadn't made more than a snipe at any of the wizards, of whatever level of experience, around her. Indeed she seemed rather impressed with Coppernik and the dwarf, Arkimedes. She was sitting between the two, on a chair, as she claimed that riding horses for more than a few days was giving her back problems. It seemed the wizards of the Stargazers' College were doing their best to impress with conversation as well as "wine and dine" Cutter, Sash, and Mousehide. Nemo had made his way to the dinner after tending to some security matter or other.

As it would happen, both Coppernik and Cutter had campaigned in the last war between the Easterners of Pholus and the Salimists of Sihlt-Awash some ten years before - on opposing sides. Like true adventurers, however, neither harbored resentment towards the other, nor the side which paid their salary. Instead, the two used shared experiences with the climate and flora and fauna of the western edges of the Graptak Expanse as a conversation piece for the dinner. Both would bring up a certain hardship and look at the other with a wry smile, which the other would immediately sigh or laugh about, bringing on laughs for the larger group around them. Even when Coppernik talked about the loss of his nose, by the misfire of something called a  "Death Spell Number Nine" by one of his colleagues, a "worthless charlatan from some Eastern citadel near Kopfenhaage" not a person in the room could help but laugh. His gruff comments about the abilities of most Guild wizards warmed even Sash up to him.

It was Mousehide who finally broached the subject of business. He sat himself a little higher in his pillows and looked at Coppernik across the hall from him. When the golden-nosed Stargazer made direct eye contact in return, there was the slightest of nods and the rogue spoke.

"This must be some job, considering the wonderful feast that we have had," he said. 

The wizard could only nod, and the rest of dinner attendees fell into a silence.

"Not only a hard job." Coppernik replied. "But a dangerous one as well."

"Perhaps we should retire to our Planning Room." Fye Thagarus cut in, starting to stand.

With her statement, all the magi and other stargazer staff except Coppernik, herself, Arkimedes, and Nemo, started busying themselves with cleaning up the dinner. The arch-wizards, for lack of better term, and the warrior-priest, stood up and waited for the delvers to do the same. Sash, though only sitting on a chair was, of course, the last to stand up. She took some time to straighten out her gown, never one to be rushed. Once the green sorceress was finished with her preening, Arkimedes led the group into a side room. Once all were in, he shut the door with a look that told all the underlings outside not to disturb them.

The room itself was rounded along the outside wall, indicating that it was on the outer side of the building, though there were no windows to confirm this. As the dark-skinned Counting Sorceress lit the room's oil lamps, the white stucco of the walls helped give the enclosure a less oppressive feel. In the center of the room were two Wizard Staves, and above each of them floated a mirage of a single geometric shape. One was a sphere, the other a cylinder. Both were made of glass it seemed, hovering in a background of sheer blackness with some sort of harsh white light illuminating them from below. Occasionally, an image would shift just a bit, which made Mousehide and Sash think that the objects presented were in motion. The Green Sorceress would swear that she could see flickers of stars, moving as fast as falling stars, every now and then. Coppernik indicated that everyone should have a seat on one of the many stools arranged around the images.

It was Arkimedes who spoke first. "What you see here are my babies," he said. "The Crystal Ball and the Looking Glass."

Mousehide and Cutter could only nod. It was Salisha who grasped what the dwarf was talking about.

"Floating observatories? Big enough for people or whatnot?" The Green Sorceress asked, then added.

"Some place where its night currently." 

Fye Thagarus smiled. "Where they're floating, its always night, Green Sorceress."

"They happen to be directly overhead." Coppernik added.

No one laughed when Cutter looked at the ceiling. No one but Sash, that is.

"I think they mean a little higher than the ceiling, oh fierce swordsman." She snickered.

Mousehide patted his friend's shoulder. Nemo gave a sympathetic shrug of his shoulders and leaned to whisper. "These egg-heads love to be clever."

"As not to be so clever," Coppernik continued. "These two structures are very large 'floating observatories' as the astute Green Sorceress noted, that we have placed over our lands. One might even say, our whole world. They were built mostly for observing the heavens from a closer perspective, and it has helped immeasurably in the mapping of Namar and southeast Isun. Not to mention predicting the weather."

"Predicting the weather?" Mousehide couldn't help but ask aloud. "Let me guess, it's hot during the day and cooler at night? And it rains a lot in the spring?"

Arkimedes laughed, though Coppernik stiffened just a bit. "Yes that is about what we have found out."

"But the point is what we have done." The dwarf continued. "Coppernik came up with an idea that would help us see the stars better, as well as see rainstorms up to seven days to the east or west, well before the clouds get thick on the horizon. And after a couple of test models, I was able to design big enough places for wizards to dwell in while doing so. And Fye Thagarus here, was able to find a way to keep the observatories floating without the constant expenditure of magic. No small tasks I tell you, son."

If he wasn't hearing it from a dwarf who was probably over three centuries old, Mousehide would have bristled at being called "son." 

"Not using Fly-Me spells?" Sash had to ask.

"Not a one." the Counting Sorceress blurted in. "Well except every now and then. You see, the World is not as flat as it looks. It's most likely a sphere in shape, according to my calculations from the data available. At a certain level, the objects we placed 'In Circling' above are falling towards the horizon, not directly down - once we get them high enough, that is." The dark-skinned sorceress leaned forward, gesticulating as she explained things to Salisha, her voice somewhat excited.

"It kind of makes sense." The Green Sorceress nodded. "As long as the bigger object is not flat. Wow, Elder isn't flat."

"And that was going to be our next project." Coppernik spoke up again. "Seeing if the World is indeed flat. With special scrying devices that we'd place into the 'Circling' altitudes, just not as high as our observatories, so they'd fall past the horizons and we'd see if they came back to the skies above us."

"That was going to be your next project, " Cutter said in a laconic fashion. "Before what happened?"

"Well," Coppernik looked at his co-wizards, who nodded, poker-faced. "That was before we lost contact with the wizards aboard the Looking Glass and the Crystal Ball."

"Lost contact." Salisha repeated.

Mousehide was not one to be in awe, despite the total weirdness of the conversation going on around him. "Why not just Wink-Wing someone up there, but not using your gates?" the half-elf asked.

Coppernik nodded and composed his thoughts before answering. "Let me put it to you this way," he said. "Why haven't you ever been to Gefar in the Southern Climes, yet?"

"It's half way around the world." Mousehide answered.

"And if you had a steam and iron horse to get you there?" The scarred wizard continued asking questions. "It would only be a matter of distance?"

"There are a couple of mountain ranges and oceans in the way." Mousehide began following the wizard's logic.

"And cliffs in the mountains," Coppernik continued the analogy. "And sharks in the seas. With storms, reefs, and avalanches."

"Mhmm." Mousehide said thoughtfully "Get a lot of storms and sharks in those 'Circling Altitudes' of yours do you?"

"Hopefully only metaphorically speaking." Fye Thagarus chimed in. "But we don't want to rule out anything. Though in theory it is possible for me to Wink anyone anywhere, there are many more factors than just distance. In this case, places sometimes don't like to be visited. Clouds don't let birds rest on them. River beds don't like land-dwellers hanging out."

The female wizard moved close to the rogue, letting her perfume do some of the convincing. Mousehide let the mental images sink in. Cutter looked between him and Sash, and he could see that the sorceress was already enthralled.

"We call it the Void," The other sorceress continued. "Well, the Void hates to be visited. When the first test dummies - we used daemons, of course - were sent there, we expected arrows and finger burns from the good spirits and godlings dwelling in the Glory Lands up above. That wasn't the case, though. They described a realm colder and hotter than the nether-realms . A void that pulled the breath from their chests and tears from their eyes."

"I have never seen a spirit so diminished," the wizard went on. "as those daemons returning from the Void. It took them months to recuperate. The Void does not want to visited."
"Until we designed the Crystal Ball." Arkimedes chimed in.

"And quite an ingenious artifact you designed there, master dwarf." Fye replied. "A sphere composed of transparent crystal melded together. Elementals of ice and fire here and there to keep the structure rather comfortable for our guests."

"You mean the bound daemons." Sash stated, a bit of irritation in her voice.

Cutter smiled inwardly. He was reassured that the magus would never be very patient with other magi and their euphemisms.

"As well as our own Stargazer wizards whom were soon to send up." Arkimedes said with a mixture pride and regret. "The whole project is to get us, the Stargazers, up there."

"So the daemons made, excuse me, make up a large part of the operations, at least initially" Mousehide pointed a finger at the ceiling, "Up there?"

"I think we should introduce our specialist here."  Coppernik said as he reached for a bell that would ring outside of the chamber.

It wasn't long before a tentative knock came on the door. Arkimedes got up and answered it without ceremony.

A smallish human came in. An Easterner by the looks of him, but his dark hair was dyed with henna and his scrawny beard was braided in the fashion of the necromancers of the First Kingdoms of yore.

"I suppose you're the demonologist." Sash asked, not hiding her contempt.

The man literally cringed at the accusation, for lack of a better word, but Coppernik stood up and placed himself beside him. "This, my esteemed guests," the wizard said with a firm voice, "Is my colleague Karriun, the Driven."

Cutter shushed Mousehide's and Salisha's snickers. Besides the fact that they were being grossly rude, there was something that had piqued his interest. "Excuse my cohorts, lord sorcerer-summoner." The warrior said evenly. "Where we come from demons, even daemons, are nothing but trouble. It is hard for us to, " he looked directly at the chuckling two, "just shut-up and listen."

"No, seriously." Sash would not be diminished. She spoke mostly to Arkimedes and Fye Thagarus. "After the trial runs, why would you keep using demons?"

Karriun shored up his courage with the physical presence of Coppernik next to him and some sympathic looks from Fye and Arkimedes. "In all fairness," the Conjurer spoke up. "Despite their inherent hate of captivity, daemons are instinctive creatures of servitude. A bound daemon is often quite happy collecting secret knowledge that he can use later in other situations. Kind of keeps them from other activities, I might add. The captive spirits in the 'Ball' were, maybe are, quite happy. They had even set up a hierarchy amongst themselves. The weakest ones did all of the observing and their finds were sent to us by their 'superiors.' The best finds were sent by their 'boss' for no other reason except their ego. It is a model of simple efficiency. At least until we could get proper wizards involved in the data collection."

"Which brings us to why the Stargazer's School needs you three." Coppernik cut in.

Here it comes, Cutter thought.

The warrior knew the name that the wizard was going to say, just by looking at the marred man's face. "Maelitesh Verximirexrev is the demon boss that Karriun is talking about." Coppernik said.

There was no dramatic silence. Instead Mousehide became quite animated. "Verimixer?" He asked loudly. "Didn't we banish him back to the abyss or whatever some ten summers ago?"

"Your party, you three and Pils, the Healer, did indeed drive him from his earthen shrine in the Back-Wood." Fye answered. "But he stopped a bit short of being exiled from Elder. He was hiding in our wine cellar sucking out rats' blood trying to recover."

"So you gave him a job?" Sash snorted.

"Not so fast, " Karriun sat forward, eyes blazing. "Before you criticizing my work. I have been dabbling in spirits for three decades. I know a thing or two about shades. Verximirexrev is a knowledge-spirit as well as blood-sucking fiend."

Sash took a breath, once agin not trying to hold her contempt in check. "It's that sort of reasoning that makes me think the Black Schools should be abolished," she stated.

Cutter looked over Nemo, the warrior-priest, and saw a secret smile appear in his eyes. It diminished as soon as it appeared. He suddenly liked the guy.

"It's that sort of reasoning," Fye said to Sash directly. "Which keeps you self-employed, a member of the 'Fresh Air Citadel,' as we stodgy sorts like to say, young sorceress."

Mousehide moved a bit away from the Counting Sorceress, but had to admit that Sash was not being very diplomatic herself.

"What our esteemed colleague from the Black School says is true." Coppernik spoke up, hoping to interpose himself before tempers could fare even further. "Verimixer - a clever name, by the way, sir rogue - has always been more of a knowledge-for-blood trader. Not geared much towards carnage and flesh-rending. I am willing to deal with the type of information he disposes, despite the price. He isn't genocidal. The binding of him was not an amoral, careless act."

Cutter couldn't think of how binding the demon could fail to be an amoral, careless act, but declined to engage in the philosophical treatise required to explain his own gut feelings on the matter.

"I don't get it." Mousehide asked after a moments reflection. "This Void you are talking about is a hellish place. No, it's beyond hellish. Why bother with it anymore?"

The Stargazers all looked at each other as if they couldn't understand how someone could fail to understand. It was Coppernik who spoke next.    "Our observatories are progress in action." The wizard explained as best he could, his hands palms-upward as if offering his vulnerable soul before the assembled three. "We can't just abandon them."

Cutter looked at Mousehide and Salisha, who did not get it either. He looked at Nemo, who was currently leaning his stool backward to rest his back against the wall, as if weary from a long and arduous hike. When the warrior-priest met the warrior's eyes, it was clear that he had asked the question many times to much the same answer.

The man almost could not think of what else to say or do. The room was utterly silent. Four scholarly wizards awaiting an answer like children awaiting the Solstice Magus with a bag of gifts and four adventurers who knew better than to say 'yes.'

Finally Cutter spoke. Someone had to. "Okay." He said to Coppernik, his golden nose blazing in the lamp light. "We'll help, but it is going to cost."

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