Ras watched the bear.
The bear watched Ras.
Ras was sitting on his tower’s front porch, ten feet above the river rapids, catching fish with Mage Hand.
The bear sat in the middle of the river, on the other side of a large boulder that divided the torrent, occasionally catching a fish that happened to leap directly into its mouth. It was distracted, and perhaps intimidated. The tower hadn’t been there yesterday, and in its experience buildings didn’t crop up out of nowhere. The jumping fish were normal for this time of year.
Ras sighed. He dropped the last salmon into the ice bucket, snapped the lid shut. He stood, stretched, and waved to the bear.
The bear eyeballed the human.
Ras turned his back on the dangerous predator, picked up his bucket of fish by its handle, and climbed the entry ladder of the tower.
The tower’s first floor was primarily a store room. Ras put the fish bucket on the cold shelf, next to two others, and closed the store room door. He hauled the ladder up and closed and locked the trap door, which he should’ve done before putting the fish away, according to procedures, but sometimes it’s more important to get the fish cold faster. Nevermind that they’d been sitting in a bucket full of Nevermeltice under the sun for the last couple hours, and were beginning to frost over.
Ras climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor of the tower, where the kitchen was positioned for easy access to the store room, and where the shower room was positioned for easy access to the stove’s hot water supply.
Ras climbed the stair to the third floor of the tower, where the study and bedroom were.
Ras climbed the stair to the fourth floor of the tower, where the maps and navigation instruments were, and the rune circle that bound the motion elemental to the tower. Ras stood on the circle and touched the control yoke. It acknowledged him with a barely-audible hum, and the tower’s legs shifted minutely. The tower wanted to move.
The bear was pretty certain that human towers didn’t move, but it knew that it did not often encounter human towers. It was also pretty certain that human towers weren’t a threat to bears, because they did not move.
Ras watched the bear run off into the woods, and felt a small pang of disappointment that he had disturbed its meal. But it was time to move, and the tower hummed at his touch, and so he walked the tower to shore, let it shake its legs dry, and followed the fall line north-northwest, towards the Abbey of Wusseldorf, where the nuns might be willing to trade a bucket of fish for some roughage.
For a bucket of fresh fish, the nuns had given him a head of lettuce, an onion, and a bushel of cucumbers. With a rye loaf from the last town he’d passed through, Ras had a lovely sandwich.
His lunch was spoiled by an obstruction. For the last several miles, Ras and the tower had followed a herder’s road long the fall line, and now a shepherd was blocking the road, waving her crook, and shouting at the tower in a language that Ras didn’t know.
He threw open a window and stuck out his head to better converse.
“Can you move your sheep?” He gestured a parting of the flock.
She held up a hand, and with a big grin shouted back, “No!”
Again he gestured for the parting. “Please let me pass?”
Ras tried his only other language. “¿Por favor déjame pasar?”
“Why not? ¿Porque no?”
“No!” And then she launched into a long explanation, waving towards the direction of his travel, waving her arm in one direction, then stretching her other arm above it, only to bring the arm down violently, before sweeping the downcast arm along the wriggling one. She nodded once, solemnly, then formed a pointed arch with two arms, before sweeping one hand down the side of the other arm. Nodded again. Pointed at the tower, gestured twice past the hills, and shook her head.
Ras sighed. He pointed at the tower, then back the way he had come, then in a big loop around to the east, and once more pointed in the direction he had been going.
She shrugged, called her sheep, and began to walk off to the west.
He walked the tower to the top of the nearest hill and looked for any indication of trouble to the north. Nothing seemed amiss, save rain clouds over the head of the valley. And it was spring, when rain met with snow to melt the snowpack in torrential floods. He checked the tower’s weather instruments. It did look like rain.
Ras sighed and turned the tower south.
“Why, Mister Rasalhauge! We did not expect to see you back so soon!”
“Good evening, Reverend Mother. In truth I did not expect to come this way so soon either. A shepherd told me something had gone wrong in the northern fork of the Wyrn, so I had to turn around. The weather didn’t look right, anyways. But it is good to see you and the sisters again. May I impose on your well, again?”
“You may, and you may do more than that. Come down out of that tower, young man, and we shall feed you dinner in exchange for stories about your travels.”
“I don’t know that it would be proper—”
“Nonsense! We are not your customers and you have no business relationship with us. There is nothing improper about hosting a traveler for a meal. Trade is all well and fine when you have a timetable to keep to, but now you are delayed, and so I must insist on offering you dinner. It is not often that travelers stop to talk with us.”
So he ate dinner with the nuns, and told them about the bear, and the moose, and the architecture of Stolm, and the raiders in Northphalia, and many other things besides. The sisters asked a lot of questions about the raiders, and were disappointed when he described them as “very disappointed when I pointed out that the tower is a trash-tier Stridehouse build from twenty years ago, and if they wanted to get one that would respond to their commands, they could get one from the Chars and Eggdoe mail-order catalogue, so they let me and the tower go, but kept the catalogue and my best gloves and boots.”
The episode of the raiders had been quite anticlimactic. Mostly because the tower’s motion elemental was bound to the Guild of Transportation, and it wouldn’t accept instructions from anyone not employed by the Guild. His expense reports barely required approval from his supervisor.
The contents of the tower were unremarkable: a selection of books from various libraries which were ensorcelled to return when their terms were up, Ras’ personal effects, the Guild’s manuals and paperworks, some maps which were enchanted to only be readable by Guild members, and the contents of the larder. Everything else was attached to the tower, and part of the motion elemental’s domain. As much was spelled out in three languages on the tarpaulin covering the tower’s cargo: “TOWER CONTENTS WORTH LESS THAN THE BOTHER”
The tower’s cargo — that was a different matter.
Ras checked the tarpaulin’s straps before going up the ladder to bed.
The next morning, he was woken by the Abbess’s call. It turned out that the nuns had a package which needed to go to Spatchcock, and since he had said last night that it was his intention to cross the Lower Wyrn at Spatchcock, would he be so kind as to drop it off at the postal agent outside town when he passed by?
“I’m sorry, Reverend Mother, but Guild regulations say I can’t take paid cargo.”
“Oh, it’s not really paid cargo, is it? Look, here’s Sister Margaret with a pie for the road.”
After fifteen minutes’ useless grumbling, Ras and the tower left the Abbey of Wusseldorf with two pies and a wooden trunk three feet tall, one foot wide, and one foot deep, which weighed about as much as the pies. The motion elemental had accepted the package into the tower, so Ras figured it was fine.
“Did the Abbess give you money to cover the shipping cost?”
“No, but she gave me a pie to give to you.”
The postmaster sighed, and massaged his brow with one wrinkled hand. “I keep telling her that payment has to be in guilders or florins, not in trade goods.”
“I got the impression that they’re not a monetary order?”
“They aren’t, but you’d think they’d accept donations of money to let them exchange for services. It’s the eighteenth century; we’ve had standardized coin since the twelve hundreds; is it that hard? How old is the Abbess, anyways?”
“One of the sisters suggested she might be less than a thousand, and seemed quite scandalized that someone so young would be an abbess of such an established abbey. But that sister was kind of out of it.”
“Nuns be drinking, eh?” suggested the old postmaster.
“No; something to do with mustard.”
“Food poisoning is a terrible disease, to be sure. Anyways, what kind of pie did the Abbess send?”
The postmaster took the rhubarb and apple pie — “not the office’s favourite, but a very acceptable alternate” — and paid for the Abbess’ package out of the snack fund mug.
Ras walked the tower across the Lower Wyrn on a wide bridge, built to hold walking buildings. It was the most-robust stone arch that Ras had yet seen, and it upkeep was paid for by tolls. The Guild had an arrangement with the toll operator. Ras put the tower’s stamp to the bridge-keeper’s receipt, and asked whether anything of note had washed down the Wyrn recently.
“Oh aye,” replied the bridge-keeper, who looked like she spent her weekends holding court as queen of the gossips. “Last sennight we had a log barge from the North Wyrn that said a storm and some floods had taken out all the bridges downstream from Pots, and landslides had fouled all the roads, and the river had cut a new course in some places. Not good at all for navigation, no.”
“That does explain what the shepherd was waving at me about. I was going to cross near Pots, and the weather looked bad, which is why I’m crossing your bridge today.”
“And the bridge thanks the Guild for its traffic today. Though it’s unusual for one of your kind to be so far uphill; what journey took ye to Pots?”
“Following the fall line road to Hildbarn, and north from there.”
“Headed past the University, eh? You should check out their library, if they let you in. They have an illustrated copy of Wow-oh’s Polymorphic Explorations. Scandalous,” said the bridge-keeper with a wink. “Ye best be on your way, and dry feet to ye on your way.”
“Dry feet to you as well, bridge-keeper.”
Ras followed the Wyrn-road up the Lower Wyrn past the Mingling of the Wyrns, and then further up the North Wyrn to Pots. A barkeep confirmed the bridge-keeper’s tales. A record spring melt had washed out the roads and scoured many valleys, leaving huge muddy piles of trees strewn across the land. Several of the hillside roads had collapsed or been blocked by mudslides.
It turned out that the shepherd had turned Ras and the tower back one day before the storms at the head of the valley. Ras made a note in the tower’s log book to have the head office send a thank-you card to the shepherd.
From Pots, the fall-line road went north to Hildbarn, and the weather was clear. At night Ras used the telescope to watch the moons. An astrologer had recently published a paper suggesting that there might be sapient life on the inner moon, based on the shapes of certain colored areas.
Even though Ras had a copy of the paper from the library of Dunhordst, he saw no sign of the shapes that the astrologer claimed.
Ras and the tower crossed the Hild at Hildbarn, where the roads were in better repair, and where the ford had been cleared to allow wagons and walkers to cross.
The fall-line road continued north from Hildbarn, and on the fourth day the tower crested a hill to show Ras the Strudelweiss: a tremendous, many-lobed glacier, whose meltwater fed a lake trapped between two rock outcroppings. Atop the outcroppings was the University of Strudelweiss, whose many buildings bridged the Weiss. Downstream of the University, the Weiss ran white and fast over chaotic rapids.
Ras parked the tower outside the gate, climbed down the ladder, and went inside to confirm the delivery instructions.
As it turned out, The Dean of Facilities was unprepared for the reality of the delivery. When the Dean had contacted the Guild of Transport for the installation of a teleportation circle, it appeared that the Dean had not received the information packet describing how to choose an installation location.
The University had prepared a beautiful building, formed of cast marble with a solid slate floor, with a large rotunda above the receiving floor, and defensible approaches onto the floor. It was aligned in the University’s leyline grid for maximum harmony with the surrounding experimental halls, and Ras greatly regretted what he had to tell the Dean to do.
“I need you to tear this building down, and depending on the approaches, you might need to tear down several more, or build some ramps. The teleportation circle installation process requires forty feet of level, open-air floor in every direction around the center of the circle. Your rotunda is thirty feet in diameter, which is big enough for the circle, but it does not fit the installation equipment.”
“Surely there’s an alternative to tearing the building down?” pleaded the Dean of Facilities.
“If y’want, I can install the circle someplace with easier access. That’s probably going to be outside the University wall, and it will require a change order which you’ll need to sign. Fees will accrue on your account at the rate described on page 35 of the installation booklet for any delay in installation caused by re-siting. I’m happy to wait, but you should read page 35.”
The Dean of Facilities read page 35.
The Dean of Facilities begged Ras’s pardon and went off to confer with the other Deans.
The Dean returned. “If we had a backup site already planned, would there be a delay?”
“Page 36. The use of an alternate site will require recalibration of the teleportation circle by a Guild of Transportation technician for any deviation of more than 10 feet, and may require reformulation, in which case I’ll have to go back to Dunhordst to get a new impression disk. The rates on page 35 include reasonable travel time, including weather. I had to detour to Spatchcock because of road troubles at Pots, and if this spring continues as warm as it has been, I expect there’ll be some other interruptions due to floods on my way back.”
The Dean sighed. “So we’ll need to demolish the entire receiving building, and what else?”
In the end, it was only the receiving building that needed to be demolished. There was apparently a student club devoted to the topic, and the building was dismantled within the hour.
To get the tower into the University required more effort. One of the faculty could create temporary rock structures, which allowed Ras to guide the tower along a set of sidewalks at rooftop height, before carefully lowering the tower down a series of ramps to the ground in the plaza formed from the destruction of the receiving hall. All that was left of the building was the smooth slate slab of the receiving floor, and some foundation works.
Now the tower’s true function was revealed. Ras pulled the tarp off its cargo, revealing an immaculately engraved disc of cheap cast stone. The tower lowered the disc like a beaver lowers its tail, and carefully positioned the disc in the middle of the University’s slate slab. “I must compliment you on our measurements, Dean of Faculties,” sad Ras as he took a water break. “The center of the slab aligns perfectly with the center of the circle.”
“We have the best mundane and arcane surveyors this side of the Dessert Mountains!”
“They do your University credit. Now, please have your people step away from the slab.”
When all were clear, Ras used a Guild scroll to cast Shape Stone on the slab. The tower pressed the disc down, leaving the impression of the teleportation circle. The tower pulled the disc away and backed off. Ras spent the next hour casting a diagnostic ritual. Several University staff looked on, taking notes. There was nothing proprietary to this ritual, and the faculty were out of the way, so Ras was unbothered. He broke for dinner to allow the stone to cool and the moons to rise.
When the first moon was joined by the second, Ras used another Guild scroll to cast Shape Metal on the pile of titanium alloy that the University had amassed in preparation. Any metal would do, but this spoke of a certain forward-thinking bent of mind in the Dean of Facilities. The choice of material meant the circle would not easily wear away over time, unlike some circles that Ras had installed in silver or ebon. The University had found a pure alloy, which was not always the case. The softened metal flowed smoothly into the impression in the slab.
By the time the first moon reached the horizon, Ras had finished with the second diagnostic ritual.
The Dean of Facilities was still hanging around, despite the early hour.
“Show’s over, Dean. I’ll do the live tests in the morning after breakfast, and then we’ll be on our way out of your city, if you can get the professor of bridges back.”
“Well, yes, about that. Professor Erstwhippe has run out of a key ingredient for Temporary Bridge, and can’t cast it until more is gathered. Would it be possible for you to use the teleportation circle to leave the grounds, when your work is done?”
Ras laid the diagnostic staff in its crate, closed the lid, secured the latches, and sat down atop the crate. “Dean, I won’t lie to you; you’re a customer. There are days when I’d love to take the teleportation circle back. But set aside the issue of the tower being an animated construct and therefore not teleportable under Guild regulations. The tower is an animated construct, which was the root cause of an explosion during teleportation four times in the last century. The fourth explosion happened at a testing ground, so no one was hurt. The second had a death toll of four hundred people and is why the teleportation circle for Prst’tk is now located outside their cavern.
“Even if I were willing to risk my life, the life of the tower, and,” here Ras gestured at the University, “the lives of all these customers, it’s still really expensive. Walk with me,” he said, and led the Dean to the circle, which glinted under the University’s streetlamps.
Ras tapped the circle with a foot, waking it. Tare, he cast, and then Estimation. With a gesture, the tower stood and walked over to the circle, and crouched upon it. The circle’s pricing spell suite awoke.
The Dean of Faculties looked over Ras’ elbow at the display, and paused. “That much, for the tower?”
“It masses ten thousand seven hundred and fourteen stone, including the legs, so that’s the standard mana price per mass here. It’s taller than the standard bubble will hold, so it requires more mana, which you can see how much in this figure. You can supply mana from this end, but the default assumption is that you’ll be prepaying for Guild-standard mana crystals at this rate, ordered and delivered via the circle. I’ll get the order forms to you tomorrow, along with the rest of the paperwork. But yes, that would be the cost of teleporting the tower, if it could be teleported. Safety Check. See, the circle has labeled the tower as not valid material. It’s set with a blocklist rather than an allowlist, and that list gets updated every so often, according to the schedule in chapter *yawn* excuse me, five of the manual, I believe. Every so often we discover something new that’s too risky to teleport via our circles, and for the safety of customers we run an update mechanism. It’s very complicated spellwork, but that’s what you’ve purchased from the Guild of Transportation: a safe Teleportation Circle. Cancel.”
Ras shut down the circle. Behind the Dean, the tower settled down by a storm drain. It resumed flushing its waste tanks with a gurgle.
“Thank you for the demonstration, Guildmember. I shall certainly keep it in mind,” said the Dean of Facilities. “I, uh, never got your name, what with the upset this morning. Would you like to come to breakfast at the faculty hall, Mister …?”
“Rasalhauge. And thank you for the offer, Dean, but I can’t accept gifts from customers. I’ll have a fry-up, and then we can talk about departures. In the morning.”
While Professor Erstwhippe had indeed run out of the reagent she needed to make the temporary sidewalks, a widened road had mysteriously appeared overnight on the other side of the plaza, leading past some empty classroom buildings to the University’s outer wall. The Dean didn’t remark on it. Perhaps the student club was involved, mused Ras.
Ras detached the impression disc so that the university would be able to reinstall the circle if it were damaged, completed his paperwork, and left the copies with the manuals in the office of the Dean of Facilities.
The new road was wide enough for Ras to walk the tower to the city wall, where a new rubble ramp crossed the wall at a slope that the tower could handle. The tower’s successful crossing was greeted with a great cheer from a small knot of scholars, who shouted their thanks for the practice.
Ras turned the tower south. The spring rains had passed, the roads were dry, and no shepherds’ directions were needed.