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(Barringtons Swords)

4

A couple days passed Tobias by in a blur. He was vaguely aware of junior faculty and senior students rushing around him, the latter usually on errands for faculty, all preparing for the new students’ first classes or their own research and mentorships. He would have been doing the same, a few days before. Even though the Tower conducted instruction year round, there were still occasional weeks of downtime for faculty to get materials in order and decide if students were ready to advance in their studies. And time for students entering their second year to find a mentor, if they so chose.

Instead, Tobias found himself contemplating a pile of books, tools, and clothing spread out around the study of his suite. The central place of honor in the mess was a knapsack sewn with runes and sigils representing Saxon, Celtic, and Sumerian cultures. The symbols had been painstakingly done in thread of various colors over the course of more than a decade by Tobias’s own hand. They served to expand the interior of the bag and protect its contents.

The etching tools and paints were a necessity, and the area they were going to was mid-autumn, so appropriate clothing was obvious. It felt incongruous, given the Tower’s late-spring weather. That left reference materials and whatever they would need for living, since he assumed the Coven wouldn’t be providing anything, even though they might. Even though the knapsack could hold a considerable amount, but there were still limits.

At a loss, he decided to check in with some of the team, starting with the member he found the most enigmatic.

He decided to go straight through the stand of trees that separated Taliesin from Drakewell. Marker certainly had a suite in the faculty quarters, but Tobias thought it more likely that he would be found in the salle, from what little he knew. The stand was typical of artificial woods, virtually no underbrush, only well-tended grass with patches of dirt between the widely spaced trunks. The sunlight through the branches created random shadow spots, but it was a peaceful and quiet part of the campus and the light filtered by the leaves had a calming effect on the young instructor.

That part of the walk was, as usual, all too short. The three story, grey stone building came into sight, in all its faux medieval glory. The doors were on the other sides, facing Wulfstan and Satyrane.

A short walk around the narrow windowed building, and passing through the heavy scarred wood door, brought him to a wide, plain corridor. Tobias walked along, passing rooms of older students and, generally, younger faculty. Snatches of instruction reached him as he passed.

“. . . hold it with the thumb and index finger . . .”

“Never have the edge toward you . . .”

“. . . bring her hand to her shoulder . . .”

The commentary was punctuated by the clack of wood on wood, the ring of steel, and the occasional grunts after a weight thudded onto a floor. In a way, it was noisy, but more muted than the sounds he routinely found in the Dee alchemy building. And there weren’t any strangely colored clouds in the corridors, just the lingering, but not unpleasant, smells of linseed oil, metal, and sweat.

After a few moments finding a senior student, Tobias managed to find out where Marker was.

He found the other instructor in a small room on the second floor. The walls were wood paneled up to a foot above head height, with stone to the ceiling. Each had pale green padding to head level that matched the mats on the floor, he counted four mats wide by six or seven long. Light came from a single, thin window and some alchemical spheres embedded in the ceiling.

Marker stood in the middle of the room, holding a short wooden sword in a guard position. As Tobias watched, the other man slid forward, thrusting with the practice sword, flipping it with his wrist into a cut about neck level, and twisting into a block against an imaginary strike at his own head. Unsure whether he’d been noticed, Tobias decided to watch quietly rather than interrupt.

After a few moments, he had to admit that Gavin, he should start thinking about the team by first name, looked impressive. His own background was sparse enough that he couldn’t tell if there was substance beneath the appearance; but since the headmaster assigned Marker, Gavin, there had to be something there.

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(acybermage – Pinterest)

“Sooo, why am I in this?” Gavin asked, looking around the group before settling on Tobias again. “I’m no researcher or scholar.”

“The Headmaster named you specifically. Since we’ll be on Earth, he wanted someone for protection, in case the factions decide to ignore neutrality.”

“Fair enough.”

Oifa spoke after a few silent moments, “What do we know about this anomaly?”

“The messenger we received only said it is big,” Tobias shrugged, “in size, not necessarily effect. Exactly how big or what that means, she didn’t say. But, it’s on a border of Coven and Rover territories and both factions are apparently worried enough about it to jointly ask for help.”

Shannon nodded, “A little tricky, but it could be worse. At least those two haven’t been fighting recently, not in several decades. Still, they’re protective of their territories, oddly in the Rovers’ case. Working completely together isn’t normal for them, and inviting outsiders in certainly isn’t. I think we can assume this anomaly is important, and potentially dangerous.”

“The Rovers will leave someone in the area to observe,” Oifa added. “Most of them will have moved on, but all Rover elders would leave someone behind if it’s that troublesome. They won’t be visible, but they’ll be there.”

Tobias took that under advisement. Salovich had been part of the Company of Rovers in her youth, he recalled.

Still, he figured they would be mostly dealing with the Coven. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to think of anyone who fit the other criteria who had been raised Coven. Except the messenger, who might be a resource. On the other hand, the Coven’s relationship with outsiders was interesting, to say the least.

“Are they likely to intervene? Or is this likely to be a trap, some way to kidnap their way to the Tower?” Marker asked. Paranoid, Tobias thought, but at least he was taking the job seriously.

Shannon shrugged, “Unlikely. There’s no benefit for the Coven or Rovers in any attempt, at least on a political level. The Coven already effectively, indirectly, controls the Henge, through influence, which is more in line with their philosophies. Attempting to take the Tower too would be . . . ill-advised on their part. And I don’t see the Rovers ever wanting to control any of the schools.” She glanced at Oifa, who shook her head in agreement. “It could be possible that the Order or the Circles could try to take advantage of the situation, or some minor player, but given the remote region, also unlikely.”

It was Tobias’s turn to nod, “The Headmaster believed the biggest possible threat would be local wildlife. Depending, of course, on what this anomaly is.”

The quartet was silent, each studying the other three or lost in private thoughts.

For his part, Tobias weighed the others and decided that he’d put together the best group that he could. Given the circumstances, the lack of information, and the limits imposed by Waite, they were his best options.

After a time that felt like hours, but was probably a handful of minutes, Oifa cleared her throat and spoke, “We should probably retire, decide what we need to take and prepare. Unless anyone has anything else to add?”

Tobias nodded, “Echoing my own thoughts. My apologies for the lack of data, everyone.”

He perched on a convenient desk and watched as the others left the room. Oifa had drifted out like she just happened to be headed toward the door, while Gavin moved with purpose and seemed to be aware of everything around him. That was subtly different from the situational awareness he’d seen in students who’d trained in combat arts, or the minimal level that he himself had learned long ago in the same classes. What was the difference? Fear wasn’t the right word, nor was paranoia; Marker didn’t seem jumpy, more wary. Shannon was last, as she had been to arrive. She moved with a purpose born of having a definite direction and goal in the walking.

Tobias remained in the empty room for a few minutes that felt akin to an hour, mulling over the wisdom of his choices.

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3

              Morning found Tobias canceling a simple weather shield spell, that kept off the moderate rain, as he entered Wulfstan. The red brick building was darkened by the water running down its sides from gutters that had started overflowing an hour before. He ignored the familiar corridors as he strode toward the empty classroom that the Headmaster had set aside.

              There were already two occupants when he opened the door. Both stood up near the front of the room, a few feet from the instructor’s lectern. A momentary glance identified the room as one of the small lecture rooms, better for this purpose than one of the craft rooms. There wouldn’t be any heavy equipment in the way. Tobias’s eyes went back to the pair at the front. Both were about his age, as most of the junior faculty were. The woman had dark hair in a braid that ended around her waist. She was trim in build, but buried in layers of brightly colored skirts and blouses. Even at the closing distance, Tobias noted the green and black stains about her finger tips that indicated an herbalist and alchemist. Oifa Salovich, he recalled, trained at the Henge, a self-described neo-druid. She looked more like a neo-hippie than his mental picture of druids. The man next to her was her complete opposite. Clad in blacks and dull grays contrasting with her rainbow, his light hair was cut short, almost in a buzz cut. He had the slim, strong build of a professional athlete. Even within the confines of the Tower, and Wulfstan, Tobias spotted at least two dagger hilts and the ray-skin wrapped long hilt of a short, he thought Asian, sword. Gavin Marker, the relatively new combat arts instructor, he thought, their protector. He had no idea where the man had trained in sorcery, or swordsmanship.

Both turned toward him by the time he was halfway across the room.

Tobias held up a hand to forestall the expected questions.

“Let’s wait until Master Riallo gets here,” he said, “I’d rather only explain things once, if that’s alright?”

Salovich nodded and found a chair that she folded into without a word. Marker seemed about to speak, then thought better of it. He took a position between the lectern and the wall, seemingly both relaxed and alert.

They only had to wait a couple minutes before another woman joined them.

Tobias nodded to himself, Shannon Riallo was the member of the group that he knew best. She’d started as a wizard, like him, and they’d both attended the Tower, although she was two years ahead of him. Even though she had been out of the Order of Hermes for a decade or more, she maintained the control and appearance they instilled. Her light brown hair was, as usual, done in a tight bun. Unlike many faculty, she also favored suits, this time a slate grey with thin pinstripes under a set of white robes than managed to give the impression of being a lab coat instead. Tobias guessed that she had a collection of gemstones that would outclass a modest jeweler on her person, probably at least three hidden away for every one she displayed.

He flashed the newcomer a small, familiar smile, before clapping his hands once.

“Ok,” Tobias said, turning to take in the entire trio, “Now that we’re all here, I’ll try to shed some light on what the Headmaster wants, as little as I can right now.” He proceeded to related the messenger’s arrival and their meeting with the Headmaster. “For his own reasons, the Headmaster has decided to accept the Coven’s and Rover’s request. He wanted a small team, and you’re it, to cover as much as possible, since we have no idea what sort of anomaly this is.” He shrugged, adding his own mental assessment of the messenger who didn’t get necessary details. Maybe the Coven wasn’t ready to say much, they were secretive where other factions were concerned.

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(Yandere Simulator)

Tobias took the dismissal and rose, not without a little shake in his knees, and turned toward the door. The meeting, he decided as he left, had gone about like every one of the other handful he’d had with the Headmaster: short, to the point, and mildly confusing in a vaguely indefinable way.

He exited the Tower facing the Dee School of Alchemy, and walked clockwise around the circular building. His feet took over and followed the familiar path as his bemused mind reviewed the last several hours. Tobias went around nearly half the Tower before striking out across a quad toward the Taliesin Salle. Somehow he’d gone from preparing classes for the term to leading a team for fieldwork. The last time he’d done fieldwork had been a couple years before the Headmaster hired him.

Past Taliesin was a stand of woods that separated the class buildings, both the gym and the Satyrane School, from the faculty and staff living quarters. The trees provided a degree of privacy for the residents, kept the students from invading the housing too often. They also kept down the noise from the main part of the campus. Then he was past the quasi-medieval salle building and headed through the trees toward Drakewell Hall, the white brick home of the faculty suites.

A small smile turned Tobias’s lips.

The senior faculty would throw a fit. They were probably in Waite’s office at that moment hemming and hawing. More likely huffing, actually. Most of them had not taught an intro level class in several years. The majority mentored a handful of senior students each, leaving the more basic, group, instruction to the junior faculty. Even then, he knew some spent more time avoiding their students than they did actually instructing, the better to focus on their personal research projects.

For a moment, he wanted to sit invisibly in the Headmaster’s office for that meeting.

But only for a moment.

Then the reality of his situation hit him again, just as he reached the heavy, brass bound oak door of Drakewell. A moment later, Tobias passed through the blue-gold carpeted, off-white painted first floor corridor to his own suite. Eventually, he might move up to the second or even third floor, as his standing increased.

His eyes roamed over the familiar sitting room without seeing anything. He collapsed in a convenient comfortable reading chair near the room’s fireplace. Tobias continued scanning the room without actually seeing anything, ostensibly looking for anything he should pack, but really dreading what he knew would come next. Riallo, Salovich, or Marker would knock on his door sometime in the next few hours. Maybe all three of them. Once the Headmaster told them about the major change of plans, they would want to know what was going on immediately.

Damnit.

Why hadn’t he just kept on walking, instead of pausing to listen to the lecture he’d heard many times before?

If he’d just kept on walking, he wouldn’t be in this mess. He wouldn’t be leading a team. He wouldn’t be leading a team to investigate an anomaly they knew literally nothing about, in a political situation he knew nothing about. A political situation that he had applied to teach at the apolitical Tower in order to avoid for the rest of his life.

The Brotherhood was excellent at acquiring knowledge, and preserving it, but they were, he had to admit, pretty piss poor at dissemination and access for outsiders. Politics, again. Unlike most of those he’d been raised with, he’d always felt that the information and research his elders collected was a waste if no one ever used it.

With a mental shrug, Tobias turned his attention from possible problems to his half-read copy of Critias Flavinius’s Principles of Gallic Sigils.

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(Bentley Chism – Pinterest)
(Random Mage)

2

Tobias retired to his office to consider his choices for the team. The room was much less comfortable than his quarters, therefore better to keep him focused. It was also significantly smaller. As junior faculty, he rated a space that he could touch both walls of if he lay down across the room. Without stretching. It was probably twice that deep. Between the mandatory desk and built in bookshelves, there was barely room for a second chair for visitors. Not that the second chair mattered, no students came to the office anyway. A few really needed to, they could use the extra help. No windows, just a solitary glo-sphere embedded in the ceiling that cast a muted yellow-white light about the closet. Tobias leaned back in his desk chair, his hands brushing the opposite wall as his eyes roamed absently over his office library.

As the Headmaster had said, he had history and cryptomancy covered well enough. And languages, a requisite for good cryptomancy. That meant covering lithomancy, alchemy, general sorcery, and theory . . . with two people, to make sure all magical areas were covered. And they had to be fellow junior faculty. Actually, that made things a little easier in some ways. They would be less resistant to field work and, like him, they did most of the Tower’s teaching grunt work, so tended to be less specialized out of necessity.

The needs of the project severely limited his options for potential field companions.

Three hours later, Tobias was standing outside the Headmaster’s office. He stared at the door, identical to those of every other office and classroom in the Tower of Sorcery, the Tower’s central structure. Although it was seven floors up, while the faculty offices were on the first floor. It was a rectangle of mottled dark wood, arched at the top, bound with twin black iron tridents riveted horizontal across the boards. The black iron ring handle hung limp, but waiting, on the right. Nothing different from the hundreds of other doors in the building, except for the patinated brass plate that read Headmaster set at eye level. Nothing that should cause him to pause.

Except that this was the Headmaster’s office, and he’d been charged with a task, albeit probably a minor one not worth wasting the time of senior faculty.

Master Jacobs knocked, with a trace of hesitation.

He waited to hear a summons before entering.

Tobias’s first impression on stepping into the room was always the same, no matter how many times he saw the office, it was good to be the Headmaster. His own office in the Wulfstan College of Cryptomancy, a building attached to the Tower, would fit in a corner of the Headmaster’s first floor. And there were two floors above, in one of the Tower of Sorcery’s attached spires. The whole was luxurious not only for space, but in furnishings. There was room for not one spare chair but several, and a couch. The Headmaster’s desk dominated the room, more or less centered, with the old man rising and walking toward him. Papers, tomes, and parchments covered the surface, every flat surface, really. Tobias tried, unsuccessfully, to place the smell that drifted down from a higher level. Probably something alchemical, Waite was said to be an accomplished alchemist.

After the spare man nodded him to a seat, and retook his own, Tobias sat straight on the edge of what was probably a comfortable wingback. He waited for the Headmaster to speak.

“Come about the field work, I expect,” the older man said, a veteran of these meetings.

“Yes, sir,” Tobias nodded. “I’d like to request Masters Riallo and Salovich, if they are willing.”

“Why?”

“Both are junior faculty. Shannon’s, Master Riallo’s, background is lithomancy and she’s taught general sorcery. She also has some political expertise that could be an asset, with the Coven and Rovers.”

“Granted, take her.”

Tobias nodded again, “Oifa Salovich has alchemical and pure magical theory experience, to cover the other necessary areas.”

“Agreed,” the headmaster replied in a heartbeat, “Good choices. I shall put Ona on reassigning their classes post haste. Take Gavin Marker, from Taliesin, as well. Never know when one of the factions might decide to ignore our neutrality. Or he might be useful should the local fauna prove troublesome.”

“Taliesin? Are you sure, sir?”

“Indeed. Just to be safe,” Waite allowed a small shrug, “It has been some time, but there have been cases of factions attempting to abscond with Tower faculty in the past. Why, during my first year teaching we had a new instructor shanghaied by the Order for a couple days. Where was I? Oh, yes. I shall inform Masters Riallo, Salovich, and Marker. They will be instructed to meet with you first thing tomorrow morning, after breakfast.”

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(Shutterstock)

“The Coven and Rovers have sent a joint message, a request for your assistance, Headmaster.”

“As I am certain you are aware, we do not . . .”

“Pardon, Headmaster, they say they’ve found an anomaly between their territories, in some woods. They would like some Tower scholars to help them best investigate it.”

Waite leaned back in the chair and folded his long fingers into a ball on his chest. His eyes moved to the door, but Tobias sensed they were seeing something far beyond the mere walls of the office or even the Tower.

“What sort of anomaly?” Tobias said, softly, when the Headmaster’s eyes became unfocused.

“They didn’t say, only that it was big. And I got the feeling they meant in terms of size, not effect.”

Waite chose that moment to return to the conversation, “Master Jacobs, what are you teaching this term?”

“Early History of Sorcery, Western Civ to 1600, Saxon Runes,” Tobias rattled off, “And I’m covering Babylonian Glyphs, after Master Thomlin’s . . . accident. Master Arden’s covering Intro to Rune Lore, as junior-most.”

“Hmm. We can reassign those, even if we need to overload someone,” Waite said, obviously thinking aloud. “With your expertise, I think we will attempt to assist the Coven and Rovers. Choose a couple other members of the faculty, not Master Thomlin, of course. Junior would be best, given the nature of field work. No more than three, in addition to yourself. No reason to leave us entirely short staffed.”

“What about the senior faculty?”

Waite smiled, “They will just have to get used to teaching some of the introductory courses again, for a time. This should only take a week or two. It will be good for them, perhaps a bit humility building.”

“Why me?” Tobias noted the messenger’s interest in the question as well, nothing more than a quirked eyebrow but it was still there.

“Basic skill set, Jacobs. Barring any other information, we do not know if this thing is natural or unnatural. If the latter, your knowledge of cultures and languages can be helpful in identifying the magic,” Waite waved absently toward the area beyond the room, “If you would like my advice, I recommend taking a mixed team, cover as many specialties as three people can. More angles.”

Jacobs nodded, his mind already reviewing some candidates. Although he had only been at the Tower for a few years, the faculty body was small enough that there were no nameless faces.

As Tobias left for his office, he heard the Headmaster say, “Ms. Johnson, if you could, inform the Coven and Rovers, assuming the latter are still present, that we will have a small group of specialists available to them in a few days. We really cannot assemble qualified individuals faster than that, with a new class of students only just arrived.”

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(Dante’s Wardrobe)

“Headmaster . . . a message . . . important,” she said.

Interrupted in mid-sentence, the slender man behind the room’s podium straightened his gold rimmed glasses to focus on the newcomer. After a moment, he nodded and gestured toward the door, “Master . . . Jacobs, is it? In the corridor? Could you see to our guest here for a few minutes while I wrap up here? Thank you.”

Waite brushed a stray lock of his grey-white hair out of his face and returned his attention to the class. The rest of his introductory lecture was lost as Jacobs led the messenger from the classroom. He remained silent until they reached an empty office.

There, he made sure the woman was seated and settling down before he said anything.

“I’m sure the Headmaster will be with us shortly,” he said, “Until then, is there anything I can get you? Sorry, I am Master Tobias Jacobs. And you are?”

“Ariel. Ariel Johnson. Midwestern U.S. contact post.”

Tobias nodded, the Tower kept some drop boxes for urgent messages from parents or packages that faculty or staff ordered. Some people were given means to communicate with Tower staff to be brought to the Tower’s pocket dimension in emergencies. Otherwise, someone on staff was assigned to do regular runs to pick up anything left for the school.

“The Coven sends an urgent message, they say they need help.”

Tobias shook his head, “We don’t get involved in faction politics or Earth’s affairs, that would ruin our neutrality and our mission.”

“The Coven’s Midwest leadership believes the Headmaster will make an exception,” Ariel said, “I’m just the messenger, Master Jacobs. Just relaying their request.”

Tobias nodded, “I know, I just don’t want you wasting your time and effort, though I suppose it’s too late to worry about that now.”

Silence fell across the room, the Tower instructor willing to let it sit for a time so their guest could rest. He studied her for the moment. He first noticed her shoulder length, wavy mahogany hair framing a relatively young face that featured hazel eyes that leaned toward blue. She wore no jewelry to speak of, nothing setting off the loose, forest green button down shirt. Tobias’s quick eyes, honed by years of time in the classroom, spotted the end of a matte black clip knife peeking out of the front right pocket of her faded jeans. Often a sign of blood magic, but he did not get that vibe from her. So, witch, perhaps.

When he felt the silence stretch too long, Tobias gestured toward her, “Where are you from?”

Ariel shrugged, “My family’s Coven, from the East Coast.”

“Ah. Sorcerer?” Tobias had not seen a staff, but he kept his own short and tucked in his sleeve most of the time for convenience.

“No, I did a term at the Henge,” Ariel said, slowly, “but, couldn’t take it. I’m definitely not brehon material. Not Coven material either, it turns out.”

Tobias nodded, not entirely understanding, “I’m going to guess a witch, then?”

She looked at her red canvas sneakers and nodded, “Yep. Any idea when the Headmaster will get here?”

“He should be already. Usually the new student lecture doesn’t last too long,” Tobias rose to look out to the corridor, “There may have been questions, or kids to talk out of making too hasty a decision.”

Tobias spotted the slim, bookish Headmaster’s head above the crowd of new students in the corridor. He waved a moment, as the older man unconsciously tossed his shoulder-length hair and made eye contact. As Headmaster Waite came closer, and more fully into view, Tobias thought, not for the first time, that the man looked like he should be conducting research in the library, not a veteran of more than four decades administering the Tower.

A moment later, the Headmaster made his way into the room, slipping past Tobias. He nodded to Ariel before taking a seat on the other side of the office’s desk. The younger instructor caught her ever so brief flash of distaste, perhaps concern, as she took in the Headmaster’s attire. Admittedly, the man insisted on robes that would have been fashionable in the 90s, or maybe the 80s.

Those thoughts vanished before the Headmaster’s sudden business-like demeanor. He sat at attention and gestured Tobias to the side of the desk, all his attention focused on their guest.

Jacobs said, “Headmaster Waite, Ariel Johnson, Midwestern U.S.”

Waite nodded, “Ms. Johnson, to what do we owe the pleasure?”