"WHAT?" Perrick roared. He and Fheder immediatly raised their pistols and even Aldon looked around, wide-eyed and panicked.

"The Tower's genius loci," Urbana repeated, perturbed by their reaction. "What's wrong?"

"You mean we have a Keldon-damned snake loose in here?!" Fheder yelled, now the most hysterical of the bunch. "Damn gin's gonna kill us, kill us slowly," he babbled on.

"If anything should happen to me," Aldon started, "there will be consequences!"

"You tricked us! You bitch, you tricked us!" Perrick roared and aimed his weapon in Urbana's direction.

"I do not understand your reaction," she said evenly, but obviously confused. "There is no snake here. Why would there be?"

"You said 'genius loci'," Perrick snarled. "We know what you damn Ezyrians call 'genius loci'."

Suddenly, Urbana's face lit up in understanding.

"Oh, you've never encountered-- how silly of me. You probably have had some bad exeriences with wilder genii," she smiled apologetically. "Those do take the form of snakes in their first stages."

Silence fell over the group. Perrick's weapon was still aimed at Urbana, though that did not seem to daunt her.

"Battle of Porda Ledo," he said shakily. "A whole battalion was annihilated by a gin you damn Ezyrians set loose. The whole shore was drenched in blood. There were five survivors." His voice faltered slightly. "My brother wasn't one of them."

"I understand," Urbana nodded slowly. "I understand that you've seen genii being misused like that. I assure you, they are as much victims as the people they killed."

"Is that so?" Aldon inferred darkly.

"Yes," she replied sharply. "Imagine coming to conciousness for the first time in your life and all you feel is pain. Excruciating, unrelenting pain that will not stop until the source is completely removed." She switched her gaze from Perrick to Aldon. "That is what they feel. A genius loci is the spirit of a place, its very essence, given life. You must not often wonder how the ground you walk on or the room you live in feel, but I assure you... Land that is stepped on by unwelcome invaders feels only pain."

Perrick seemed somewhat cowed by Urbana's words. He lowered his pistol slightly.

"And the Tower?" he asked.

"The Tower's genius is upset that you stole from him," Urbana shrugged. "That cannot be helped. However, he is more sophisticated than the genii you encountered. He is older and wiser than most others and has not, for a very long time, taken the form of a snake."

"But it can?" Fheder asked, wide-eyed.

"Any form is available to him," Urbana replied, an impish quality to her words. "It teaches invaders to be cautious."

"He won't hurt us, then?" Fheder insisted.

"No."

Sighing of relief, the two enforcers put away their weapons. Aldon was not as relieved, not yet, but he relaxed at least briefly.

"What have you gotten us into?" he muttered unhappily. Urbana shrugged, a smile on her lips. 'That woman will be the death of me,' he thought sourly.

--

Climbing the stairs, Aldon had asked Urbana what the meaning of the orbs was.

"The colours of the lights don't necessarily have a meaning," she replied. "It simply shows a state of mind and you can guess at it if you know him well enough."

"'Him' being the gin-- genius loci, I presume?" Aldon surmised.

"Yes. Some genii, once they reach a certain level of sophistication, develop complex personalities, even gender identities. The Tower's genius always appears as male," she explained.

"Hm," Perrick muttered. "Exceedingly tall tower identifies as male. Why is that such a shock?" he grinned towards Fheder. The latter was still jittery, but reacted with a hesitant smile. They were carrying the chest holding the Bloodbead of Ruana up the stairs, Perrick leading the way.

"At any rate," Urbana continued, unperturbed, "he has been around for a very long time. He went through many shapes before settling on his most recent."

"His most recent being...?"

"Human."

"I see," Aldon muttered.

They finally reached the second level of the tower. The circular room was just as large as the bottom chamber, but had only a glowing orb in the center, on a dais, and no stairs. This orb emanated soft yellow light, brightening the room as would the sun. On the walls, velvety blue curtains hung, bearing the symbol of the Clerum.

"This isn't right," Perrick said breathlessly.

"No, most certainly not," Aldon agreed. "Where are the stairs?"

"There were stairs last time?" Urbana asked, though her voice was void of any curiosity. She seemed to be mocking them.

"Yes, madam, there most certainly were!" Aldon raised his voice, turning to her furiously. "I suggest you cease this trickery immediatly!"

The air suddenly grew chiller and the light from the orb dimmed slightly.

"What...?" Perrick looked around, uncertain.

"He doesn't much like you right now," Urbana clarified, "so he probably doesn't like you yelling at me any more."

Aldon gritted his teeth. "What is happening?" he asked, trying to maintain his calm.

"He probably wants some sort of retribution," she said, finally. No sooner had the words come out, that she heard Perrick's gun being cocked. She sighed. "Not that kind, enforcer. He's just... angry you stole from him."

"You said it wouldn't hurt us," Aldon said accusingly.

Urbana sighed. "And he won't! Just... just have patience."

She stepped towards the middle of the room, where the orb was. She raised her hand, though she didn't quite touch it, and spoke softly to it. The Ferndites could not hear her words, but they looked around, nonetheless suspicious. Finally, she turned around and approached them again.

"He might come," she said, with some uncertainty.

"Will he bring stairs?" the Chief Administrator asked blithely.

She was about to reply, possibly in a very sharp manner, when her eyes fell on something behind him and her face lighted up in a smile.

Turning around, Aldon got his first look at the Tower's genius loci.

It was in the shape of a man with light brown hair and eyes so pale a blue, they seemed to glow. He was thin and not very impressive in height, wearing outdated Vixenportian garments. He seemed young and frail, looking nothing like what Aldon pictured the majestic Tower's spirit would look.

His gaze was blank, almost detached, and it was clear that whatever the Tower's intelligence was, it was not hidden in this particular apparition's head. Instead, the body seemed to move like an instrument, a puppet. A finely crafted and finely wielded one, but undeniably an instrument. With awkward, almost teenager-like moves, the genius loci approached Urbana.

"Hello," she said, smiling widely.

"You've been gone a long time," he-- it-- said. His voice had a hollow quality, like it was made of echoes.

"Things have been changing out there," she shook her head regretfully. He raised his hand hesitantly to her face and brushed her cheek gently. The gesture struck Aldon as somehow disturbing and distasteful in its affection, when he took into account that this was the Tower that made it.

"They stole from me," he said in a low and strangely intimate voice, peering over Urbana's shoulder at the Ferndites.

"I know. They want to give it back now." Urbana grasped his hand and lowered it from her cheek. His intense gazed moved back to her.

"It's not that easy," he said.

--

Aldon's vision swam. He was not alarmed at first, except soon after, his senses gave out completely and he felt a distinct falling sensation, though he did not think he hit the ground. Had he fainted?

He certainly felt as if someone had knocked him out. His head pounded and his left cheek felt oddly cold. It took him a few moments to realise that he was lying face-down on a cold marble floor. Lifting his head, he could not tell how long he'd been unconcious.

He raised himself to his feet, taking in his surroundings. The floor was so white, it blinded him, though the room was not lit. He could see clearly by the luminescence of the floor, though not the walls or the ceiling. Checking his timepiece, he noted that it was little after noon. So he must've been out just for a few minutes, at most.

He looked around, confused. How had he gotten there? Why was he there? While his mind reeled, he could only come to one conclusion. The gin had done it.

--

Time passed, as it had the habit of doing. Hours seemed to dwindle on, but when Aldon checked his timepiece, it indicated that merely thirty seconds passed. Clearly it was defective. There was no other explanation.

He sighed. Gins-- or genii loci, as Urbana called them-- were things to be feared where he came from. Monstrous snakes that sprung from nowhere and wreaked havoc among the Ferndite forces. For a while, the gins were the Ezyrians' most frightful weapon. Then, the Ferndites started learning the tell-tale signs of the beasts' presence. An oppressive, unwelcoming atmosphere... strange, dry mist... an utter and complete silence...

Ezyria was one of the last places in the civilised world where the gins were allowed to exist. Until recently, he hadn't even considered this to be a good thing. Now, when he distantly wondered if he'd been wrong, his worst prejudices were swiftly reconfirmed.

--

His thought eventually wandered towards Ferndahl, towards home. He thought, with a longing pang in his chest, about his fiancee. He hadn't thought about her for a long time, but she was the reason he'd accepted this post as Chief Administrator. It would lend him status, something the young couple had always yearned for. The fact that he'd be separated from Denella, though, affected him more than he'd ever admit, even if it was for a goal they both strived for.

--

He thought, briefly, that he should have felt hungry. Surely after so much time had passed, certain bodily functions would begin to assert themselves?

He got up and started walking. There were no landmarks or any kind of distinctive elements about the floor, so it was hard to say if he made much progress, but surely he'd have reached a wall by now and with it, a door. However, he'd had the feeling, ever since waking up there, that there were no exits. Usually, he wasn't one to succumb to despair, but this was more like coming to terms with the truth.

--

He was sure he'd grow mad. With no escape, no companion and no chance of dying, he would slowly grow mad.

He'd tried to prick his finger with a sharp edge from his timepiece, but it would not break the skin. It didn't even hurt, which he found even more suspicious. The timepiece still insisted that he'd been in the strange place for only a few minutes and so he concluded that it was useless, even as an aid for suicide.

He wondered, vaguely, how long it would take his mind to completely fall apart.

--

"Aldon."

He looked up and slightly to his left. Urbana was looking down at him.

"I've gone mad, haven't I?" Aldon asked in a resignated tone. Urbana had never called him 'Aldon' in the real world.

"No, not at all. Grab my hand."

He looked at her hand-- her bracelet, especially-- with suspicion.

"It burned me last time," he muttered.

"It burned me worse," she replied. "Aldon, there are times you should take things at face value. Times you must take things at face value."

"But not gins," Aldon added.

"With genii, you have face value and illusion at the same time," she laughed. "But this time..."

"What are you doing here?"

"I'm here to take you back. He's had his retribution. Come on, you'll feel better once you're back."

He took her hand. Not out of trust or hope or some bizarre sense of friendship. He did it because he was the only thing he was still capable of doing in that place.

--

He felt the transition. He felt the walls coming alive and the air vibrating. He felt long tendrils of possibility extending from everywhere, wavering in the thick substance of time. He felt every layer of reality, existing at the same time, occupying the same space and leaving whole abysses between microscopic flecks of physical substance.

He saw everything that ever was, he saw every process, every element of the universe, every combination and every thought. He saw and did not see at the same time. What he once thought was real he realised was only a projection on his pupils, while now his eyes were finally open.

And just as quickly, it was over, and he was back in the Tower, surrounded by Perrick and Fheder and Urbana and the damn gin.

--

Perrick and Fheder were leaning over Aldon, worried looks on their faces.

"What happened? What did she do?" Perrick asked anxiously, throwing a glance at Urbana.

"Just help me up," Aldon replied, his voice hoarse.

The two enforcers dutifully obeyed the order. Aldon was slightly unsteady on his feet, but appeared no worse for wear. He looked at Urbana, his expression unreadable.

"And that was...?"

"He sent you to the Timeless Room," Urbana answered in a low voice, looking at the Tower's genius with reprimand in her eyes.

"No, the... the other," Aldon frowned.

"Oh..." Urbana seemed uncomfortable. She fidgeted with her bracelet, uncertain. "It was the dreamscape. Not a place one should spend too much time in."

"I see."

And he did see. In the dreamscape, he felt as if he'd seen for the first time in his entire life. It had been a strange, but unforgettable experience.

"We will return the Bloodbead now," he said firmly. Perrick and Fheder immediatly started protesting.

"After what that thing did--"

"It could have killed you!"

"--You're not seriously considering--"

"Enough," Aldon cut off. "Before it gets any worse."

Urbana looked at him approvingly.

He wasn't sure what would have gotten worse, or how he'd acquired the knowledge that it would, but he was tired now and not in a mood to fight.

The Tower's genius looked at him calculatingly, but nodded slowly.

He'd been appeased.