Now in the First Ring, the bridge before her leads into the Academy of High Magic grounds. In this part of the Insula, solid ground gives way to rushing water, as Janu Iteru, the Great River that bathes the Urbis Caelestis, cascades down from the very top of the mountain that the City is built on and licks its surface all the way to where it spreads in a wide delta and finally falls, endlessly, into the nothingness of the Void. Here, where its bed is leveled, the river slows down for a few yards before plunging again down the mountain.
It is here that the Academy rises from the waters, sustained by countless pillars that shoot out of the mirrored surface as if the rock itself stretched up fingers of stone to hold the buildings.
It probably did, Alma thinks to herself. Wizards were never very keen on subtlety.
As her feet lead her slowly under the bridge, her gaze lingers on the high walls before and around her. Dark stone, greyish-black criss-crossed by bright, glowing lines like lightning imprisoned in obsidian, covers towers and spires on which gargoyles perch. Their ruby eyes follow the goddess on her path and she can hear the light, crushing sound of stone rubbing on stone as they turn their hideous heads to look at her. High above, dragons and pegasi hover, catching warm currents in a complex, choreographed aerial dance.
Below, where the river rushes and roars, swans swim peacefully. For a moment, Alma stares at waters, swearing she can see a long shadow stretching beneath. But then, it is not there anymore and she carries onward, eager to finish this task and leave this beautiful but eerie place. Suddenly, she catches a glimpse of movement through the corner of her eye and turns to see the swans taking flight. What she sees next explains why: a huge water serpent, its sinuous body as thick as her own is tall, leaps out of the water, its greenish-purple scales glistening in the sunlight as it jumps over bridge and goddess and crashes into the water on the other side, a swan caught in its jaws, disappearing immediately into the depths.
Taking a deep breath, Alma rushes on her path.
No wonder wizards are such lunatics, she muses. Even the sanest of wisemen would go insane if banished to such strange landscapes for long enough.
In front of her, a tall building stretches and fills a deep gorge, its walls seemingly merged with the bedrock. Windows punctuate the smooth surface, most of them showing no hint of life within. But here and there, flashes of colored light occasionally catch the eye, followed by muffled thunder. From an open balcony door, white smoke billows and twists into vaguely recognizable shapes. War scenes play out as soldiers made of smoke crawl out of the whitish cloud and engage each other in battle.
Finally reaching the main entrance, she looks up at the massive wooden doors that block her path. Their very surface seems to hum with barely contained power. A touch of her hand to ancient wood makes her fingers tingle and the hair on the back of her neck rise with the sheer electric sensation. Under her touch, as if reading her thoughts, the doors open with a predictable, ominous and roaring creak, making Alma smile at the obvious cliché.
They probably even tune them to creak just right, the goddess muses.
Breathing deep, Alma peers into the gloom beyond, crosses the threshold and steps into madness.