Author's note: Let me start this out, yet again, with an apology. I had previously promised, in one of my other stories, an update every seven days. But, I do have a valid excuse for my less than punctual installments in this story. I've recently run into a string of...bad luck, I suppose you could say. My computer died, and now so also has my car. As a result, I find myself in a bit of a financial mess, and with less time for writing, as well as reading and reviewing. I promise still to get back to everyone who reviews me-just be patient, it will take a bit more time than before. One notion that has occured to me is selling my stories, perhaps to a magazine, for some extra cash, though I'm going to be honest-I've never written as anything but a hobby, and I am unaware as to whether you can still even be paid for stories. If anyone has some experience with this matter, I'd appreciate some clarification.
The walk to the glass towers, while Adam had previously completed it in the space of an afternoon, was not an easy one. Their luggage, which had seemed light at first, quickly began to drag at their arms as they walked on. Their feet quickly became sore, and Marcus, who set a quick pace, seemed to be impervious to their discomfort. West eventually took up Lael's burden, but both Sade and Adam were offered no help with theirs. Lael seemed slightly embarrassed by this, but did not speak of it.
Though the walk might have been uncomfortable, it could do nothing to lessen their enthusiasm and excitement for the school, not to mention their curiosity about the glass towers. Sade questioned Adam about the towers incessantly when he told them he had been there before, but there was little he could tell. He had merely walked the streets and marveled at the wonder-many of the strangers there seemed to speak another language. The streets were very well paved, and there had been strong men carrying well-made swords in all the buildings. The amount of goods streaming in and out of the glass towers and the stone buildings closer to the ground had astounded Adam-entire cartloads of clothes, swords, tobacco and what seemed to carts filled with random knickknacks and junk-all had entered the towers or the buildings surrounding them. Every single cart had been counted and noted by a man with glasses, pen and clipboard, who had been flanked by two guards.
"Junk?" Sade shifted his suitcase so that it lay, somewhat awkwardly, across his back. His seemed heavier than either Adam or Lael's, and Adam hoped that Sade's father had not been better informed about what they might need. What would he trade for something that he required? Most commerce in Sandstreets was done through barter, or through the exchange of small, plain coins engraved with a number and little else save the image of a hand grasping a torch. Adam knew these coins served as far away as the glass towers-he had seen men exchanging them-but the school was supposedly very far away. Would their currency be accepted so far from Sandstreets?
"…Yes," replied Adam, suddenly remembering that he was in the midst of a conversation. "Metal things whose purpose I didn't know, small globes of glass…strange things."
Lael had seemed oddly uninterested in the glass towers, even seeming to regard them with some sadness. Now she spoke, walking lightly at Adam's side, staring up at the towers that now rose before them, gleaming brightly in the sun. "We had towers like this back in my old world," she said, her eyes distant in memory. "But so much taller…so much more grand."
"Sometimes I think you make up stories about your old world just to impress us, Lael," said Sade.
"No, she's not lying," said West, his voice deep and warm, somewhat startling Lael, Sade and Adam, who had not known he was listening. He glanced back at them over his shoulder as he walked ahead with Marcus, smiling at them somewhat. "Our greatest were almost ten times as tall as these."
"I've come across books that speak of worlds with such towers," Marcus said, more to West than to his son and his son's friends. "Books that spoke of those towers usually spoke of other wonders, too. Of particular interest to me was the concept that a man could design a plague…"
And from there on the adult's conversation faded out, as Sade and Adam were left to wonder and try to conceive in their mind of a tower so tall. Adam, for a moment, felt as if his mind certainly gripped the concept of just how immense the building would be, and it caused him to stumble forward.
Eventually the buildings changed, the red brick of sand streets giving way to wood covered with peeling paint in a variety of colors. The streets changed as well, becoming winding and as unfamiliar as the faces that surrounded them. The strangers, for the most part, remained friendly, though Adam suspected they might have been robbed had Sade's father not been wearing the uniform of the Arbiters. A subtle change was taking place in the people around them as they drew closer to the towers, however. They'd see men wearing long coats and strange conical hats, who Adam knew as the men who inhabited the towers. And wherever these men went, people seemed to feel more important, they seemed to walk more purposefully. The men in the conical hats themselves seemed to carry themselves with a peculiar self-confidence that seemed to speak of pride in their accomplishments.
Noticeable too was the clatter of carts, whether horse-drawn or dragged by men, all streaming towards the towers. Soon they were walking amongst what seemed an endless train of carts, all of which seemed to be carrying tobacco leaves. These carts soon clogged the streets, wide as they may have been, and Sade, Adam and Lael found themselves being drawn closer to West as a humongous crowd formed in the street.
"Stay close to West," Marcus commanded them, as the people in the crowd jostled them about. "Don't get lost in the crowd."
The mass of people, crammed almost shoulder to shoulder, was moving excruciatingly slow. Eventually, word came down through the crowd that one of the carts had broken a wheel and crashed into another, and the resulting wreckage was now almost completely blocking the streets. The merchant and his guards were not letting people walk over the wreckage, trying as they were to save their product.
The crowd of strangers, as mild as they had seemed previously, quickly turned to outrage after the delay had lasted nearly fifteen minutes.
West grimaced as a man near them began shouting curses at the top of his lungs, demanding that the merchants move their carts. The man continued this until Marcus fixed him with a cold glare, but the damage had been done-the crowd was becoming unruly, and it was becoming worse with astonishing quickness. There appeared to be some discontent in this area of the city, and Adam overheard various comments that the merchants were so rich, the loss of some tobacco shouldn't bother them-never mind the man who had provided the tobacco, who relied on the income from it to feed his family.
"Quite the bother, isn't it?" said a strange man, speaking as if to Adam alone. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and a scarf, despite the summer heat, over which a long, pale nose protruded. The rest of his body was covered by what looked to be a strange, poorly sewn together trench coat. His hands, flexing and gnarled, shook incessantly.
"I guess," said Adam, surprised that nobody else seemed to have noticed this strange man. Stranger still was the sight of another similarly clothed character, seeming to be making their way towards where Adam and his little group stood.
"My name is Hirbret," continued the strange man, "And I know of a shortcut by which we may make our way around this crowd."
"Thank you, but I've got to stick with my friends," replied Adam, finding himself somewhat unnerved by this man and his strangeness, kind though he may seem.
Adam glanced around and noticed with some despair that he had become separated from the others. He thought he could spot West, standing head and shoulders above most in the crowd, some distance away, though a wall of people separated them.
When he looked back toward Hirbret, the man was reaching out toward him. Adam did not know whether the gesture was friendly or hostile, but his initial reaction was to clumsily knock the reaching hand away. In doing so, Adam noticed that the man's hand was cold and clammy, and also that the man hissed in pain as Adam struck.
"I'm sorry," said Adam, as Hirbret clutched his hand as if it were wounded. "I didn't mean to hurt you, you just surprised me."
"You're quite strong for your age," replied Hirbret, a trace of sarcasm in his voice. "Quite the strongest I've ever met, in fact."
"I'm not that strong," said Adam, not out of modesty but rather out of fact. Another oddly clothed character was now helping Hirbret, offering a hand while whispering something into his ear.
"No, no, we'd need more," Hirbret grimaced in reply-Adam wondered if these were some form of merchant discussing business. Hirbret waved off his companion, who melted into the crowd, despite his conspicuous clothing. "Well, Adam, rejoin your friends, I suppose, if you've no desire to skip the crowd. Take a care to be less paranoid in the future, though."
Adam found his way back to the group after much jostling past stranger's elbows. Oddly enough, none of them seemed to notice his disappearance any more than they noticed his reappearance. Marcus was pushing his way through the crowd, using his authority to secure them quick passage.
The blockage was more severe than they'd thought it would be-the wagons had struck each other hard enough to splinter, and one man stood to the side, holding a bloody rag to his head, while others gathered the tobacco in the streets, piling it to the sides where two men wearing swords stood grimly, facing the angry crowd.
"Move quickly, fool, unless you want a riot on your hands," Marcus snarled at the man who held the bloody rag, who paled visibly. When Marcus swept by, he seemed slightly relieved.
"What's put him in such a bad mood?" said Adam, softly, taking care that Sade's father didn't hear him.
"I overheard him saying to West that he thinks we're being followed," said Lael, softly again.
"Who'd be stupid enough to follow an Arbiter?" asked Adam, receiving shrugs from his friends. It was idiotic-even the most vicious street brawler would have no chance against an Arbiter's magic. Better to pick an easier target to rob. Adam glanced behind, but aside from the slow trickle of people moving around the wagons, there was no one he could see who might be following them.
They were now amongst the buildings that surrounded the glass towers, large and yet low, featureless buildings in which they stored the goods that arrived from all around. The glass towers rose into the sky, blotting out the sun, light reflecting off of their many windows.
"This is where we get our transportation," said Marcus, and he then led them down a twisting series of alleyways, surrounded by the merchants of the glass towers in their conical hats, babbling in that language of theirs.
"That language they speak-is that Italian?" asked West, sounding extremely interested.
Marcus shrugged as they took another turn down yet another damp and seedy alleyway. "I don't know it myself, but they call it Vincetti."
Presently they came to a large red building in a place where the sidewalks were dirty and cracked. Two Arbiters were outside, busily talking to a very unhappy looking merchant in Vincetti. The younger of the two-who had the same grim look in his eyes, Adam noticed, that Sade's father did-saluted Marcus when he saw him, and strode over, leaving the merchant arguing with a single Arbiter.
"Is there a problem?" Marcus asked the man.
The younger Arbiter shrugged. "We've promised this man a favor and the return of his property, but he seems to view it as an unfair trade."
Marcus snorted, as if in contempt. "Then he just doesn't understand what a favor from an Arbiter can be worth. Make it clear he won't lose any wealth over this and he'll be just fine."
Marcus led them all inside the building, brushing his way past the babbling merchant, who seemed to be on the verge of tears. The windows of the building let in little light, but it was well-lit by softly glowing orbs of glass. These wonders Adam had seen now and again in the city-Gustav the butcher had even purchased one for himself once, though it had quickly lost its glow, leaving Gustav to curse the merchant's name for weeks.
Much of the building was filled with boxes, piled high to the ceiling, marked with a strange series of numbers and letters from which no sense could be made. But in one corner, sitting idle and huge, was a massive metallic…foreign cart, it looked like, though it would take an astonishing amount of horses to move this contraption.
"A car," Lael said, her voice filled with wonder and a trace of sadness.
Lael and West seemed the most excited by these, though West had certainly known in advance what to expect. They spoke of their old world, a world in which nearly everyone owned a car, strange creations that could travel faster than a horse could gallop, and for days on end.
Then they spoke to each other in code while everyone loaded their baggage in a small compartment that opened on the back of the thing. Or so it seemed-they used words that Adam could not hope to understand, all while running their hands over the gleaming metal of the car. The metal was painted a deep greenish-blue, though it was scratched and scuffed in many places.
"It's a Toyota Corolla-I've never heard of one of those. But it looks just like a Citizen," West was saying to Marcus, who was being polite enough to pretend that he knew what the guardian was saying.
Lael was smiling at Adam and Sade expectantly, as if waiting for their opinion.
"How do you attach the horses to it?" Sade said finally, when the silence had worn on long enough.
"No horses," Lael said, laughing, much happier than Adam had seen her in a while. "It runs by itself."
Adam and Sade immediately gained a new appreciation for the remarkable object. "Is it magic?" Adam asked, looking for a means of propulsion.
"No, science. West can show you the engine-"
"Later," interrupted Sade's father, closing the compartment at the end of the car with a loud bang. "He can show us all the secrets of this thing later, but I would like to make my way out of here as soon as possible. We are still being followed."
"By who?" asked West, to which he received no answer.
Lael and West opened the sides of the car by gripping handles hidden within the metal, and everyone climbed in-West and Marcus in the front, Lael, Adam and Sade in the back. The seats seemed to be all padding, and were somewhat comfortable.
West manipulated the controls of the thing, and suddenly it roared it life, shuddering and emitting a terrible growl. A thick stench of smoke and other scents completely foreign to Adam flooded the inside of the car, though there was no visible smoke.
"Seems like she has some problems," West was saying, chuckling lightly.
"Will it drive?" asked Marcus.
And then, miraculously, the thing began to move on its own. It shook and squealed and roared, but all that metal moved forward as if by magic, despite Lael's assurances that it was in fact otherwise. Adam found this endlessly wondrous, but Sade soon remarked that the invisible motion had a way of making one sick.
Marcus directed West down various side streets, seemingly designed to keep the car away from the crowds of merchants and people who would find reason to gawk in wonder at the thing, though he assured them all that in the area of the city where the school was, the sight of a car was uncommon but not a cause for fascination.
Eventually they got away from the crowding and small streets, in which the car could nearly scrape up against the walls, and into streets that seemed better prepared to accommodate it. This was amongst the glass towers themselves, where no carts of produce crowded the streets, and the merchants who walked the sidewalks glanced with some interest at them, but did nothing further. Once he was sure that West had the right directions in mind for a while, Marcus settled back into his seat and spoke to them of a time when the glass towers had first been built, when the people had bought with them from their world incredible knowledge and secrets. And cars-many cars, not so many that everyone owned one, but enough so that they were a common sight. Even Sandstreets had originally been a community in which cars could be found.
But men forgot the secrets of their old world, slowly but surely, through the generations. And now the men in the glass towers barely knew how to keep their buildings standing, let alone how to build new towers. It was more a testament to the skill of the original builders than the maintenance habits of the current inhabitants that the towers still stood. The secrets of cars had been lost long, long ago, and now not even tales remained. This one was not built by anyone in Crossroads, but rather taken from another world.
The buildings around them rapidly changed, reflecting the incredible speed of the car, which West was fully able to take advantage of as the streets became more deserted and night fell. The glass towers gave way to a massive park, full of forests, over whose dirt roads the car rattle uncomfortably. Through the park, they would reach a smoother road-one so built that went straight from one end of Crossroads to another, or so said Sade's father, though much of it had now fallen into disrepair and could not be traveled. Nonetheless, the portion they must travel still stood, and it was a sure way to reach their destination with ease.
Adam soon found himself lulled to sleep by the motions of the car and the boredom of the journey, though the fact that the car was moving on its own was still wondrous to him. He noticed that Lael had already fallen asleep, and Sade was nodding off while looking at an odd coin in his hand. Too tired to question his friend about it, Adam too let himself rest, leaning his head against the window, watching the trees as they passed by in a blur.
It was as the trees thinned out, and they pulled onto a smooth road bordered on either side by abandoned-looking buildings, that Adam fell asleep.