“So what did you come see me for?” Said Sleepy.
“I have two things I came to talk to you about. First, I’m going to be leaving the ship, and this floor of Babel in less than a day and was kind of getting in an early goodbye. We are likely not going to see each other again for a long time, but you’re my friend, so I wanted to make sure you knew you were valued”. He paused and opened his bag of holding. “Second. I wanted to give you this”.
In his hands was a slim, red leather bound book with a sigil in the shape of Laurence’s hammer on the front. It had embossed leather patterns all over it, but the two most prominent symbols were the glyphic runes for ‘Creation’ and ‘Book’.
Sleepy looked at the book curiously. It was not that she did not trust things Laurence gave her, but this was something special. She could feel it from the aura that the book exuded. It expressed a power that was well beyond what she could really appreciate, but she understood that it had not only a strong aura but also some semblance of a personality. The book intrigued Sleepy, but it also scared her.
She hesitated for a moment, then reached out and took hold of the book, peeling open the first page to reveal a detailed map of the ship, and its surroundings. Each word was penned in with her own chicken-scratch handwriting. It was surreal to see something that she recognised as her own, but she had never seen before. She turned the page and was presented with the words The Book of Creation – Martial Manifestation of Immortal Cultivation Through Creativity and The Arts. It was an imposing title, but one that made Sleepy nothing less than completely stunned by it.
Her hands shook as she grasped the Book for dear life. It was without a doubt the most valuable item she had ever seen and she had just been gifted it by a child. She tore her eyes away from the book and stared at Laurence like a deer in headlights. She was not sure whether to cry and thank him or to run as far away as she could. It was not what she was expecting.
“Is… Is this why you’re so strong?” She said, gripping the Book in fear that it might run away. Sleepy knew that in theory anyone could cultivate towards immortality, because there was no single true way to reach the ultimate. The reality was that cultivation was infinitely hard without some sort of guide, be it a cultivation manual like she had been given or a master like Yun with Louisa. Wars had been fought over the chance to read a single page of one of these books and families were torn apart by them. That was the simple allure of immortality.
“It’s why I know anything other than the basics of how to fight and medicine. Almost everything I know was picked up from this book. I guess that in a way, this book is me”. Laurence frowned. He could feel he was on the edge of something profound with his last statement, but he could not work out what. In the end he could only sigh as the sensation of epiphany left him. “Either way, this book wanted to be with you, so here you have it. With your talent in arrays you should become strong quickly”.
Sleepy clutched the book to her chest the moment that she heard it would help with arrays. She had two passions in life, and becoming a master of arrays was one of them. Unfortunately master arrayists would often misteach or misdirect students who were not the student who would gain their inheritance. Arrays were an incredibly cut throat region of employment, and they had only become more so since the loss of the Book of Creation from the tower. She simply could not imagine what else the book that she was holding contained.
“I can monitor the arrays while you read the book if you like,” said Laurence. His female friends nodded mutely. Her eyes still the size of saucers. “Be warned, don’t try and read the book all at once. You’ll become a Saint when you finish your first reading, but you will starve to death long before that point if you don’t stop”.
Sleepy nodded, her heart in her throat. It was one thing for Laurence to give her something to save his life as well as the lives of all others on the vessel, but giving Sleepy something so valuable seemed completely unprecedented to her. In the end Laurence took over with monitoring and the girl sank to the floor. She sat there reading the book for seventeen hours. Not once did she look up or break her concentration, just every so often Laurence would hear the sounds of a page turning amidst the pulsating bell-song of the arrays.
In the end it was Laurence who snapped her out of her reverie. The navigator made the hour call to land, and so Laurence’s time was coming to an end with the ship. Before he left he wanted to talk to her about what she had seen in the Book. It was always a joy for Laurence to discuss the forms of creativity that the book allowed one to use, but he had only actually had a chance to do this with Yun and Damascus. Sleepy was a new mind and a new take on the way of creation. Laurence smiled as he looked at the new initiate into the study of the Book.
“So, how was it?”
“It’s incredible!” Replied Sleepy, breathlessly. “I read about the basic forms of carving and array creation. Is it true that the act of creation is just hyper complicated array work?”
“Yeah. When you reach the later stages of the Book you will gain something called truesight. With truesight you can see infinitesimally small glyphs that make up the language of creation within any major artifact formed by us”.
“Wow. I can’t thank you enough”. Sleepy paused, the cogs in her head whirring quickly. “I have to ask, why me?”
“I don’t know. The Book itself chose you, so it must think you have potential to become an immortal. I think you do, so I will wait for you to catch up to me”. Laurence grinned and Sleepy smacked him ineffectually at the jibe. She knew that Laurence really was a lot stronger than her. He may not be as worldly, but his travels would soon make him more so.
They chatted about the way of Creation for the next hour, when the voice of a very worried navigator crackled into life on the intercom. “Guys we’ve just reached land, but there are two entities coming up on us at great speed. I think the snake might be back”.
The intercom cut out and Sleepy swore. She quickly ran over to the arrays and made sure that they were all in order before activating the speech array and talking over the intercom. “Jonas, the engine is in order, but we can’t go any faster. It has been on max all day. We can’t outrun the snake anymore”.
“What did that word mean?” Laurence interjected.
Laurence swore. Sleepy could not help but look up at her young friend when he spoke. It was slightly awkward hearing swear words come out of the mouth of a child who; despite the fact that she knew he had both maimed and killed more people than she likely would in her entire life, she still considered an innocent.
She chuckled away at Laurence and then finally said, “It is a crude word for making a child”.
“I didn’t know that there was a word for the process of making life”. Replied Laurence, “I haven’t come across that in the Book of Creation, at least as far as I know”.
She burst out laughing. The boy always managed to confuse her, sometimes coming across far beyond his age in the way he spoke and treated people, but sometimes lacking the most basic pieces of information that she knew at his age. He really was an innocent.
Before they could talk further the intercom crackled into life again. “Incoming!” The navigator yelled. “All hands brace for impact!” People all over the ship rushed to their nearest hand hold and tied themselves down in as many ways as possible. They had all seen the way the ship had rattled when the control of the ship was switched repeatedly and no one wanted to become a slab of meat filled with glass.
The crew collectively held their breath as they waited for the worst to happen, then finally they heard the telltale metallic screech that managed to set their bones on edge and minds spinning in fear. The maelstrom snake was back. They could feel the rumbling of thunder travel through their bodies, despite the powerful shields that Sleepy had put in between them and the world outside. Lightning flashed through the sky, blinding the crew who could see outside. Their hair stood on end at the fearsome power the creature displayed. It seemed far more angry now than it had been before.
After around thirty seconds of cacophonous noise all the sounds died down. It was quiet, even pleasant in comparison to what they dealt with before. The crew let out a collective sigh of relief. It was over.
Then something hit the ship. There was a cracking and a crashing sound as the snake’s fearsome body smashed into Rosie’s Demise and knocked it into the ground. The arrays in the engine flickered like mad as they tried to cope with the damage and sudden change in direction. The ship sped towards the ground, but the pilot managed to regain some semblance of control before they struck. The bottom of the vessel sheared off and began to immolate, leaving a massive trail of debris and charred earth in its wake. They hoped it was over, but the snake was just beginning.
The sound of splintering wood and tearing metal ripped through Rosie as the ship grated itself on the ground. It slid for almost a kilometre before slowly shuddering to a stop. The nose of the airship had been completely ruined by its landing, but the shields has reduced the brunt of the damage. On the left side of the ship’s tail there was a huge dent that spanned the entire upper end. It was as wide as ten men and very deep, even through the shields.
The ship sat there, shields desperately flickering as they tried to keep the vessel protected, but it was of no use. Rosie was dying. As the crew began their mad exodus from danger the ship cried and squealed in its death throes. Even the engine, Rosie’s heart, was in a state of disrepair. Dozens of the arrays had shattered trying to keep up with the demand for power, and dozens more had broken because of the excess power in the area thanks to the other broken arrays.
Laurence looked on at the mess made by the snake, and by extension Zoo, with muted emotions. He could feel something bubbling up inside him by could not name it. I liked Rosie he thought as he watched array after array snap and burst into motes of light. I really liked this ship. The feeling was simmering away as the boy began moving out of the vessel with a very disorientated engineer over his shoulders.
“I liked everyone on this ship. I learned a lot from all the crew and from Jonas and Sleepy. I learned a lot from Rosie”. He said to himself. His voice was quiet, barely audible to Sleepy who was regaining her senses. It made her shudder. This was not the normal inquisitive child she had come to be firm friends with over the time they had been travelling. This was something else. It sounded like Laurence, but there was something slightly off about the way he was talking, something insidious.
He got outside and put Sleepy down next to where her brother and Louisa were standing. The crew was coming out in dribs and drabs, but it was hard to watch. They were stranded without the ship and the snake was ominously flying towards them. If the snake got to them it was a death sentence, but they knew that there was nowhere to run. The island had a forest in the distance, but the pain stretched for miles in all directions.
“I liked Rosie”. Laurence said again, the feeling reaching a fever pitch. It was close to bursting and there was no sign of the void that usually descended, no blissful nothing that hid him from the rush of adrenaline and the madly rippling emotions he would have had to deal with.
Suddenly there was a voice echoing in Laurence’s ear. Well why don’t you just kill the snake then? You could learn a lot from its corpse. The voice came from very close by to Laurence but sounded completely different to anyone he had met recently. He looked around for a moment and could not place it, but the voice had a point. Kill it. The voice repeated. There was a strange resonance to the voice that made it seem slightly ethereal, almost unreal.
He would have questioned the voice more, but he was being overwhelmed by emotion. It fizzed and frothed just below the surface, building up pressure and begging to pop. “I liked…” He breathed in. Kill it he heard again. “ROSIE!” Anger, rage, wrath and hatred burst from within him. There were such potent energies bursting from within him as he screamed the name of the ship that the people around him had to take a step back. The Saintly mana within him burst out and undulated around him rapidly, flicking about dirt and crushing the grass beneath him.
Laurence snarled as blood vessels in his eyes burst and dyed his vision scarlet. He was so angry. He could not hold back any more. Kill it he heard again. Whatever was telling him to kill was something he could no longer resist. He let the rage consume him and summoned Jormugand. The hammer lit up the sky with the torrents of fire as Laurence charged towards the maelstrom snake. He would not think, could not think. Instead all he could do was kill the beast.
He sprinted towards the wyrm, mana pumping through his leg muscles. Each step forced up clouds of soil and grass, coating everyone and thing behind him in a fine mist of dirt and pebbles. A light blue mist exited his mouth and nose as he ran. There was so much mana flowing through his blood and muscles that even his breath was laced with it.
Within moments he had reached the halfway point between the crew and the snake. The sky crackled and tore as the snake swooped down to snatch the young boy up in its jaws, but even bathed in rage as Laurence was he knew how to defend himself. He swung his hammer back and retreated as the wyrm’s head neared, letting the beast’s nose slide past his face by inches. As the snake’s nose touched the ground Laurence flicked his bladed hammer forwards and felt a pull of mana from his weapon. As mana reinforced his hammer, the size of the weapon increased until the flat of the hammer itself was over a meter in diameter.
The hammerhead collided with the snake and the scales of the beast simply shattered, charred and turned to ash. The boy was flung back by the ricochet force, but he twisted in midair and slammed the hammer into the side of the snake’s head again. Once more the hammerhead bounced off the snake and Laurence used the force to make another strike. He bounced and struck again and again with the oversized hammer he wielded, each strike cracking and charring the snake’s skin. Within the three seconds that the snake had attacked and pulled its head back Laurence had struck it six times, and he still had power to continue.
The maelstrom snake moved its head up like a cobra, ready to strike once more as laurence stood below it, like an ant. This ant, however, had caused it immeasurable pain, and had left six large black welts on its soft underflesh. The snake cried out, putting all its power from the scream of pain, fear and anger into it. With this scream the air visibly warped and bulged away from the wyrm. This attack held all its immaterial strength and even the feral Laurence shied away from it. The cone of pure sonic force ripped through the ground and sky, tearing apart everything it touched like a hurricane made of razorblades. It churned the earth and sky, cut through the tough rock below the surface of the island like butter, and left a crater around Laurence akin to that of a meteorite. The ground was torn up for thirty meters in every direction around the boy, but he still stood, right in the middle of the hole.
His leather clothing was covered in lacerations and blood was steadily seeping from each wound, but still he stood, fuming at the beast. He pulled up the hood that he barely used on his tunic and that awful grin appeared on his face. Grin, red eyes and horned hood combined the boy looked less like a child soldier and more like a demon incarnate. Even the great wyrm that owned the skies of the fifth floor was intimidated, so in response electricity began collecting around and inside its mouth, the buildup much slower than before. It stood tall and proud, even in battle it was the regent of this region, normally the undisputed god of the world it was in and it held itself so. However tonight it was fighting the devil incarnate.
KILL! Laurence heard once more. It was all he could hear at this point. KILL! KILL! KILL! He was still so angry with the beast, but his body was reaching its tipping point. He was pushing it as far as he could go, and within all of the eight seconds he had fought the beast he had pushed himself to the utmost limit. He screamed out, it was a primal scream in response to the snake’s cry, but one that held as much emotional impact, even if it was lacking in the power that the former had possessed.
He began running towards the snake once more and let out another guttural roar, from deep within his body and heart. Pushing off from the ground he flew into the air, quickly reaching eye level with the snake. The lightning crackling around the beast had reached a point beyond life threatening, but still Laurence faced the danger with reckless abandon and swing his hammer. As he swung he heard snapping sounds like a thousand rubber bands being stretched and broken all at once. It made him feel hundreds of times stronger for that single moment of striking before making him feel as weak as a baby. The hammer fell and caved in the beast’s jaw, trapping the lightning that it was preparing to spit at him shuddered through its sensitive innards. The electricity was so powerful that the beast could not even scream. It simply jerked around as the charge ran through its body, and a scent of cooked meat slowly began to suffuse the area.
Laurence fell from his leap and hit the ground. His body indented into the earth. Since he took that final swing his emotions had eased up and the blood lust had dissipated from him. The voice had stopped talking to him and he felt relaxed with the situation. He closed his eyes and began laughing, wincing every so often as he realised he was covered from head to toe in wounds and his own blood.
When the snake’s fresh carcass hit the floor a cloud of mud burst into the sky. The ground around the boy and beast was churned up and torn apart by the energy and impacts of the strikes. Rivulets of rock and debris stood around the battlefield, marking the island in ways that would last long after the crew of Rosie’s Demise left.
Yun, Louisa, Jonas and Sleepy all ran towards Laurence once the dust settled. In their eyes the boy was crazy, and they wondered if he had actually survived. If he had actually been touched by the lightning that had charred the beast from the inside then he would have not survived, but simply falling from a height of around forty meters could still kill the boy.
When they reached Laurence everyone except Yun gasped out in shock. Laurence’s body was a mess. There were cuts and bruises covering his body, several bones sticking out from his flesh and even some of his muscles were warped and twisted in the wrong shape. Even his hair and uncut flesh was singed and blackened. He was a mess of wounds and seriously needed medical attention if he was not dead already.
While the others were standing in shock, Yun lent down and checked for a pulse on his brother. After what felt like an hour he found a weak one. Carefully he touched Laurence’s chest and began injecting strip after strip of mana into his body, forcing it to activate his lungs and the inner flame formation within him. Beads of sweat dripped down his forehead as he worked away at restarting Laurence’s shattered mana paths.
With each pass of Yun’s mana, each cell of the pathways began to strengthen beyond belief. The cells gleamed with vibrance and life in a way they had never done before. Their near destruction had enabled a healing process that made them tens of times tougher than they were before. They were healing themselves and making Laurence stronger to boot. Unfortunately this did not help much with the physical wounds that covered Laurence’s body. He needed mana to regenerate his body quicker, but it would not correct all his body parts that had been shunted out of place.
As it stood Laurence would be hideously deformed if healed in the state that he was currently in, so Yun took the only steps he knew to fix it. He physically straightened and corrected all of Laurence’s bones and muscles himself, stringing them together with bands of mana mere millimetres thick. With each correction the young boy screamed out in pain. He was not conscious, but every time something was reset he woke, screamed and then fell into oblivion again.
With minute long breaks and a large amount of the malmas tincture that Laurence had concocted through their journey Yun managed to dull the pain to the point where it did not stop Laurence’s heart. It took him over an hour to fix everything but by the time he was done the young boy’s body was repaired as well as it could be. It was simply up to the reborn mana paths to rejuvenate him now.
Laurence spent the next week recuperating in an effective coma as the crew worked out how to get the ship in usable shape. Almost all the crew had survived, but of the mutineers only Yannis and one other were left alive. Even then they were both heavily injured.
The crew set up camp just outside of the ship and both Sleepy and Yun began setting up array after array to fix the ship up. Both lamented the fact that Laurence was too injured to help them, for while Yun excelled with flexibility and dexterity Laurence was capable of outputting far more raw power in all aspects of cultivation. Like their spirits Yun was the sewing needle while Laurence was the warhammer. If Laurence had taken part in the restoration of the ship they would have simply speed up by almost five times the speed. Instead the chassis of the ship was half complete when Laurence finally rose from his slumber.
He woke to the rising sun. With his full body covered in bandages he momentarily found it difficult to move, but only because his reservoir was nearly empty. Closing his eyes he assessed his body, and to his surprise there was very little wrong with it. In fact his mana reservoir had doubled in size and there was now a small stream of mana pumping through his body and tempering it constantly. Each time the stream of mana passed over a section of Laurence’s body it would pause and infuse every individual cell with mana until it was packed bursting with energy and raw power.
What was happening to his body was the instructions that Tony had told to the new challengers the day Laurence first entered the tower. He had wondered why Tony had lied then, and still he did not know, but he now realised that Tony was telling the truth about infusing the body with mana to make it much stronger. Laurence quickly took off the bandages covering him and gazed at his skin. It was still the almost apricot brown that he had been born with, but now it was as soft and smooth as silk, and many times more durable.
He continued his introspection, scouring his body for any more changes when he noticed something concerning about Jormugand. There was an almost imperceptibly thin fracture going down the middle of his hammer. It was small, but still worrying. His weapon was his soul solidified, so if that broke then he had no doubt that something bad would happen. He simply did not know what. Until the matter of the crack was solved he decided it prudent that he avoid using the hammer. This left him with a predicament, however. Without his hammer he had no weapon to enter combat with, and while he knew he could swing his fists at anyone he needed to fight he also knew that it would be nowhere near as effective as his hammer had been. He needed a spare weapon.
Getting out of the bed he was in he exited the shack he had been sleeping in and entered the camp for the first time. It was a roughshod affair, with shacks and tents hastily erected to cover the crew and their tools from the elements. The entire camp was set up in a semicircle around a fire pit that had some meat slowly roasting over it. The heady stench of cooked meat made Laurence’s stomach growl furiously to remind him that it had been days since he last ate anything, so he walked over to the pit and began devouring as much food as he could.
As he ate, he heard a gasp behind him. He turned and saw Jonas and Sleepy standing, staring at him wide eyed, and open mouthed. To them he looked like a dead man walking, because to them he really was. Jonas recovered first and walked over, grabbed a knife and cut off a small chunk of the haunch that was currently being decimated by Laurence.
“Hell kiddo, remember to breathe between carcases”. He sat down next to the boy and began chewing on the hot strip of meat. Laurence in return simply grinned with a mouth full of snake flesh. “So how are you? You’ve been dead to the world for a week, and very nearly dead to the world permanently”.
Laurence swallowed his food and then spoke. “I’m fine, better than fine in fact. I think the whole situation may have actually made me stronger. What have I missed?”
“Well, we are rebuilding Rosie and I am thinking of renaming her to ‘Rosie’s Revenge’, we’re also building this camp into a port town controlled by the crew. With Dunwu’s help we should be able to set up an array to attach this part of the island to the slipstream. No one goes this way much, but I reckon we could make a pretty penny offering transport to challengers like you”. Jonas took another bite of the meat on his knife, chewing quickly and then swallowing. “Yun is out scouting the area but he said to give you this if you wake up”.
Jonas threw Laurence a pouch, very similar to his own bag of holding but smaller and made of snakeskin. Opening the bag to look inside he saw a massive pocket dimension, filled mostly with the skin, bone and fangs of the maelstrom snake. Laurence smiled and began using his truesight upon the bag and saw that the entire thing was littered with intricate and minuscule arrays. Each array was layered or connected to another array, bolstering everyone they touched. It was a masterpiece, one that Laurence had yet to match, and seeing his brother work so hard to make something got Laurence fired up to make his own creation.
“We want to use the skull of the snake as the centrepiece of the town. We’re calling the place Maelstrom, after the skull. I hope you don’t mind”.
“Of course not”. Laurence replied. “As long as you don’t mind taking me and my friends the rest of the way for free once the town is set up”.
The next couple of months passed by uneventfully for the settlement. Laurence, Yun and Louisa stayed while the town was being built so the crew of Rosie would not have to worry about being indebted to anyone before their new home was built. Yun had said it was the least they could do for letting Laurence recuperate.
Laurence agreed to stay but for reasons entirely of his own. The day after he woke up he shut himself in his room for two more days. He declared he was working on a couple of things, but no one, not even Yun, knew what. On the fourth day after Laurence woke up from his coma he revealed himself with a host of drawings on paper and a small white ring. He gathered the crew together and said to them, “For the last few days I have been thinking about something, a way to protect you guys from harm. Last night I had two ideas for some giant arrays, but I will need everyone’s help to get it made”. Placing the stack of paper in the middle of the crowd he said “I need you all to take a sheet of paper and bring that sheet to the point of the town where it turns red. When the paper turns completely red, put it down immediately and come back here to pick up another one. Once all one hundred of them are in place, I can begin”.
He waited as the fourteen people moved off with the paper. Some dawdled, some ran and some walked slowly, but within the hour all the sheets were in place. Laurence stood in the centre of the town with the crew waiting and watching expectantly when they heard a rumbling. Only Yun and Laurence could see the tendrils of mana in the surroundings spiralled to all hundred spots, but everyone could hear the sound of shifting rock that had begun all around them. When Xuchi was sent to look at the where the sounds were coming from he discovered the sheets had melted into the rock and begun transforming into beautiful gemstones.
The gems vibrated as the mana came into contact with them, purifying and empowering them until they shone with an electric blue light. There was a period of silence that persisted for five minutes before, one after the other, the gems lit up and shot beams into the sky. As the final gem ignited, the streams began to coalesce into a blue orb, high in the sky. There was a flash and a crack. Laurence held the white ring into the sky, and the crowd watched in fear as a bolt of lightning that was very reminiscent of the maelstrom snake crashed into the boy.
Lightning arced all around him before writhing and squirming towards the ring. As more lightning filled it, it began to thrum and vibrate with power until finally there was no more lightning for it to eat. Once the lightning had dissipated, the glow from the ring dimmed until Laurence was left with an electric blue signet ring in the shape of a snake. He smiled bitterly. This ring signified his time with the crew of rosie was over, but he was loath to leave. He had come to be friends with the entirety of the crew, and had even stayed to watch the exile of Yannis and the other surviving mutineer.
He had felt nothing as the exile took place. Even with the lack of an arm and now a missing eye, Yannis got everything he deserved. In Laurence’s eyes he made a bet and the punishment he had received was fitting enough. The situation with Yannis was what caused Laurence to make the ring and the lightning array as he did. He would not have made anything more for the town but he felt that the best option for Sleepy to become a person of real strength was to give her a place where she could train safely, so he made the array and connected artifact to protect Maelstrom, and by proxy his friend.
He took the ring to Jonas, who was sat in the middle of the shell of what was to become the town hall. It was a large wooden building, but at this point only had a slate roof and a thin outer shell. The insides were still dirt floored and dim but for the lighting array that Sleepy had put up throughout the town, but that theme persisted throughout the town, and would only change with time.
Handing the ring to the captain and now leader of the town of Maelstrom, Laurence told him that it was a simple lightning array that could kill anything that the maelstrom snake could have. Originally constructed of only parts of the snake itself, the tools were designed to harness the natural magnetic field of the area and produce a bolt of lightning that could be controlled by the owner of the ring. It was Laurence’s greatest creation, a combination of the array-work he had learned over the last few months and the continued practice he had done. When used this artifact could likely kill a Saint, and was perfect for protecting the town after Laurence had left.
Within an hour of giving the ring to Jonas, they were on their way. The stele was not far, but the journey was the first that Rosie had taken since they had fought with the snake. By ship, the stele was a short distance from the town, barely fifteen minutes. It would have still taken days for them to walk there, but the ship travelled far quicker than even a Saint could. Laurence said farewell to the crew who had taken him and moved off to the testing floor with his friends.
On the other side of the stele was a long line going towards a desk. There were two spaces for people that led to the desk, but only one had anyone standing in it. The line had tens of thousands of people in it, stretching far beyond Laurence’s eyes could see. They were full of men and women of all ages, tall and small, many of whom were muttering about their long waiting time. In front of the group was a small sign that said ‘To the left if you are a challenger, to the right if you are a saint’ in a flowing cursive script.
All three of them looked at the line and then immediately walked down the clear path towards the desk. Several times there were grunts of dissatisfaction, and at one point a man tried to break away from the queue and journey down the path that Laurence and his friends were traversing, but the man could not even take one step before falling down to the ground in extreme agony. Several of the other challengers laughed as he struggled. They knew he should have known better, but instead he saw children walking somewhere he should not have and was paying the price.
They reached the desk and stood in front of it, beside a man who appeared to have been waiting for a while. He looked at them and snorted with derision. Three youths walking up to the adjudicator so brazenly surprised him, but he had seen people cutting in line before and it never went well. The adjudicator did not look up, but instead kept writing, scratching away at the forms in front of him. Every so often he would chew the end of his pen before continuing to fill out boxes on the sheet. Finally the form was complete and the man looked up. He stared at the scornful man who had been waiting for far longer than the trio, then at Laurence, Yun and Louisa before pulling a new form out of a draw below him.
“So you three are Saints, then?” He said, completely ignoring the scornful man. “If you arrived in good time, you have a choice. You can take the test in relative safety, or you can jump to the sixth floor of the tower and continue there. Each floor past the sixth will be a much greater struggle for you, because being a Saint becomes a norm on floor seven. The mana in the air is much thicker the further up Babel you go, so you won’t actually gain anything beneficial until you reach the first of the Saint floors”.
“Why even let us climb the first five floors then?” replied Laurence. This was something he had been thinking about for a while. He thoroughly outstripped the general public that he met, and so could not understand how this could be considered any form of crucible, like he had been told.
“You are allowed to climb because Golden Children need the mana of the first five floors to properly stabilise their foundations as Saints. Generally speaking the pocket dimensions you are all brought up in have next to no mana, to allow for that early upgrade that they seem to love”. The scornful man had become irritated that the children had been prioritised over him, and was going to protest until he heard that they were Saints. The colour drained from his face, and he thanked himself for not speaking when he could have, because he might not had survived. “So, floor of test, or floor six?” Continued the adjudicator.
Laurence turned to his two friends. It might have been beneficial for them to travel up the tower slowly, but he wanted to see the harder floors far more than he could bear. “Let’s go to the sixth floor”.
“Alright then. Hand me your pointer stones and I will check your time on the previous floor, then upgrade them to the stage where they would be on the tenth floor”. He took the stones, then took out a ring. A stream of symbols passed from the ring onto each stone, morphing them into a similar shape. He also pulled out three bags of shards and placed them in front of the children. “Okay, so inside these bags are eleven silver and ninety copper shards for you. You should be able to live comfortably for a week or so before running out of money on the next floor. As for your pointer stones, well they do everything they did before, but amongst other things the shield in them is now more powerful. There’s a small storage space which I will put the medkits, poison kits and talismans that you should get, as well as a communication function between people you’ve met before. If you have experienced their aura then you can connect to their Babelian ring. Within the rest of the tower, this ring will work like the tattoo on your arms, and will fuse with that to bind itself to you. No blood necessary, which is nice”.
He looked them over once more. “If that will be all, then have a nice day”. He looked at the man who had been waiting and said, “Next”.
The three moved off towards the stairwell that the adjudicator pointed them to, slightly surprised by his efficiency. There was no test and no difficulties that they had to have gone through, so it was a rather anomalous experience to them. However, having gone through the process so quickly, they had no reason to complain. Climbing the stairs, they mulled over the time that had passed. This floor was the one they had spent the longest on by far, and with it there were many memories and friends they would be leaving behind. They knew that this would continue to happen as they climbed further and further up the tower, but it still left a bittersweet taste in their mouths.
The climb itself took just under a day of solid walking, but eventually they exited the stairwell and came out to view the sixth floor. All around them there were thatch and stone buildings, the floor was cobble and concrete, and the air was lined with the faint scent of tar. For the first time in Laurence’s life he was in a true city.