As they approached the center of the City, the architecture around them grew ever more extraordinary too. Hovels and monuments stood side by side. Segments and quarterings of palaces, disconnected from their rightful places in the outside world, loomed over shanties. Mausoleums carved with incomprehensible inscriptions bulked next to fishermen’s huts, far from any water.
And that center was somewhat closer to the travelers than had at first appeared. The bizarre urban skyline ahead of them, not really as tall as they had thought, was rapidly separating itself into distinct structures as they walked toward it. And at the same time the individual structures grew more distinct, in both their normal and magical outlines. In all this the two apprentice magicians found nothing overtly alarming. But still, despite the study and preparation that had led them to expect such phenomena, the intrinsic strangeness of the place was awesome.
As the two adventurers advanced, looking around them alertly, each reminded the other at least once, in a low voice, that the most efficient way to accomplish their objective would be to obtain the desired paving tile and return to the compound of Trimbak Rao before midnight.
Their pace slowed somewhat as they found themselves, almost before they had expected it, moving right in among the taller buildings. Here the descriptions given them by Trimbak Rao continued to prove accurate. Their dog-leg road had turned into a broad paved street, not quite straight, wide in some places and narrow in others, crossed at short intervals by other thoroughfares, most of which were more distorted than itself.
Presently the explorers reached a distinctive intersection, marked by a triple fountain in the center. To reach their goal from here, if what their Teacher had told them was correct, it would be necessary to walk about a kilometer on a circuitous route. They could expect serious difficulties in ever reaching the park they were attempting to enter, Trimbak Rao had warned them, unless they approached it from the proper direction.
So far they had seen no living presence, human or otherwise, in the City besides themselves. The buildings around them appeared to be completely uninhabited, by humanity at least, and yet they certainly were not silent. At intervals there was music-of a kind. It was so unlike anything that Adrian had ever heard before, that he was unable to find words to describe it. He could tell from Trilby’s expression that she was puzzled by it too. These sounds issued from unseen sources among certain of the buildings as the visitors passed. At other moments strange voices could be heard, some crying out as if in pain, some laughing, others singing or reciting gibberish. Trimbak Rao had not warned his students about these voices, and the explorers exchanged glances. But then, they had known that the City was in some sense inhabited, and there had been no reason for the Teacher to warn them of every harmless oddity they might encounter. Small waves of magical disturbance came washing across the cityscape with the voices, but still Adrian thought that most of them at least sounded human.
When he and Trilby had gone on a hundred meters from the square of the triple fountains, their pace slowed again, as by some unspoken agreement. Now something, some instinct, seemed to be telling Adrian not to hurry. Caution was essential here. Again and again he could hear the Teacher’s voice, in memory, warning against undue haste.
The steps of his booted feet dragged on the cracked pavement.
Trilby appeared to be having somewhat similar thoughts, for her steps were slowing too; her eyes looked troubled when he glanced at her.
Moving at an ever more slothful pace, the explorers presently came in sight of a small, briskly flowing stream that appeared to have cut its course haphazardly between buildings. Most streets stopped abruptly at its banks, but a few had somehow acquired bridges.
Following the stream’s bank, Adrian and Trilby soon entered the park like plot of land that was their goal. At his first sight of the patch of thriving greenery, Adrian experienced a sense of anticlimax, though he was not sure how it was different from what he had been expecting.
The park was basically an expanse of grass that appeared to still be well maintained. Here and there a bank of hardy-looking flowers had been placed, as it seemed, by some gardener much given to random choices. Trees and bushes appeared in pleasingly unplanned positions, and narrow walks of fine gravel curved among them. The whole occupied not much more than an irregular hectare of land, and just beyond its hedged borders the structures of the City stood as before.
There on the park’s left side stood what must be the Red Temple the Teacher had warned them about, looking very much as Trimbak Rao had described it, yet somehow not exactly as Adrian had expected. The customary Red Temple colors of red and black dominated what he could see of the structure’s outer walls, which were also decorated with many statues depicting the joys of the senses.
“We’d better take a look around the perimeter of the park,” said Trilby. “Before we start digging up tiles. Just to scout things out.”
Beginning a clockwise circuit, the two young people walked closer to the Temple. As the angle from which they viewed it changed, the building began to take on a look of considerable deformity. From within the Temple’s several doorways, all dark but wide open, issued sounds that made the young Prince think vaguely of some huge spinning mechanism, and also of a crowd of humanity all speaking in low and urgent voices.
Not that there was any crowd to be discovered when Trilby and Adrian peered over the hedge bordering the park, trying to see into the Temple’s main entrance. Where once, no doubt, some eager throngs of customers and worshippers had passed, unmarked dust had drifted on the pavement, and small plants were growing here and there. There was no visible trace of human presence.
In the direction of the Red Temple, the indications and auras of magic, subtle and faintly ominous, were even more numerous than elsewhere in the City. But all the traces were weak and old; there was nothing that suggested clear and present danger.
They paused to study the statues and carvings on the Temple wall, showing the usual copulations and debauchery.
Adrian’s companion, her head on one side, was taking time to consider the art critically.
“I intend to remain a virgin,” said Trilby at last, speaking as if more to herself than to her companion. “For the foreseeable future.”
Maintaining virginity was a frequent goal, Adrian knew, among both males and females who intended to devote their lives, or at least their youth, to magic. He was still a year or so too young to have to confront this as a personal decision; now he only nodded and moved slowly on.
“We’d better go slow,” said Trilby, rather unnecessarily, as they turned away from the border hedge, back into the innocent-appearing parkland.
“Right. Take out time to scout this place, and do it properly.” Adrian felt vaguely reassured that Trilby now shared his growing reluctance to be hurried into any aspect of their mission before they could think it out thoroughly in advance.
The park was more or less centered on a pool formed by the small river’s encounter with a low dam. Over this barrier, no more than a couple of meters high, the water rushed with a continuous if muted roar.
“That’s not as loud as it might be,” Trilby commented.
“Magic?” Adrian asked.
“Magic?” repeated Trilby. Then with a shake of her head she answered her own question. “Well, of course it’s magic. At least to some extent. Like everything else we’ve come across today.”
Bordering on the pool was the paved square from which they were expected to remove a tile. Again things were not quite as Adrian had thought to find them. It was as if the soil had somehow been extracted from underneath, and the surface from which the tile would have to be removed was concave, with its lowest central portion under half a meter or more of standing water, at about the level of the surface of the nearby pool. This encroachment of the pool was evidently not a purely recent or temporary development. Furry-looking green plants of various sizes, thriving in this damp environment, grew over much of the exposed pavement and through the water, adding at least one more minor obstacle to the job of tile removal.
“Wow!” said Adrian suddenly, ceasing to be a coolly detached investigator.
“What is it?”
Probing with his powers as best he could into the earth directly beneath the pavement, Adrian confirmed what he had just detected there. “What a pool of energy. Could I ever raise an elemental here!”
Trilby looked at him with interest. “Are you going to try it?”