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(Kennelwood)

He saw the others all seemed about as disoriented as he was. The Tower didn’t have the cardinal directions the same way Earth did. In fact, the direction Ariel started in was what he’d have guessed was northeast, without magic.

A mile didn’t sound too bad. The walk between the Tower and its Preserve was maybe twice that distance. Tobias made that walk occasionally.

About a quarter hour later, he decided he’d been wrong. Walking the flat, manicured grounds of the Tower was nothing like the uneven forest they were hiking through. Looking around, Tobias saw that even Gavin, who was probably in better shape than any of the others, was having some trouble. In a small way, that made him feel better.

Ariel was far ahead of them, and seemed like she was walking along a clear path. The rest were weaving around trees and some underbrush, trying to avoid mud pits and other obstacles.

By the time they’d covered the mile, he felt his heart pounding and heard his raspy breathing. Tobias’s primary comfort was that Shannon seemed to be having trouble as well, though she was better at concealing it. Oifa appeared flushed and Gavin a little winded, only Ariel seemed unaffected.

Once he caught his breath, Tobias looked around their destination.

He could see no difference between the section of woods they stopped at and the part they’d come through. Except for the wizened man the color of mahogany who stood with hands clasped at his waist waiting for them, of course.

The man flipped his grey dreadlocks off his shoulder with a toss of his head as they approached.

“Welcome to the Coven’s protectorate,” he said, his voice rich and deep. “I am Samson, assigned to be your guide, for a brief time.”

Ariel bowed, Tobias and the others following her lead.

“We are honored, Samson,” she intoned, almost chanted, “and thank the elders for passage.”

Even though they asked for us, Tobias caught himself thinking. He noticed Gavin scanning the trees while Oifa’s attention was focused on the Coven man. Shannon was behind him, breathing harder than usual.

Samson nodded, “If you care to follow me, our transportation is this way.”

Tobias heard Shannon breathe, “No portals, gods no portals.”

Within a hundred yards, Tobias guessed, they found a tiny cleared space. At the center was a square marked out by four sticks thrust into the ground as corners. Inside the sticks were six . . .beasts. They looked horse-like, horse shaped, but seemed to flicker in and out of solidity. Shannon’s sigh was barely audible, masked by Oifa’s restrained excitement.

“I haven’t seen shade steeds in years,” she said, then to Tobias and the others, “They’re solid enough beasts and fast. Brightholme says he has some in the Preserve, but I haven’t seen them yet.”

After some looks of askance and uncertainty, the Tower team eventually mounted the ethereal beasts. Samson started the herd moving with a sharp yell.

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(Free Big Pictures.com)

6

Tobias felt an unfamiliar airiness that he assumed meant the ring was doing as it was supposed to. If there had been a clear sense of up or down, he might have thought he’d float away, but the absence of reference points, while frustrating for his senses, probably kept him from losing his breakfast. Then he noticed, for a few heartbeats, that he could not feel Oifa’s hand on his arm, nor could he see any of the others.

He wasn’t certain how much time was passing.

Suddenly, his ears popped, as if the pressure changed dramatically.

A little stumble followed, quickly righted as his inner ears adjusted.

Tobias found himself standing in a clearing. He turned around, late morning sunshine on his face, to see Oifa and Gavin less than a foot behind him. It took a few seconds for him to find Shannon and identify the heaving and wet sounds nearby. He wisely decided to keep his distance and look the other way, trying to find Ariel, who was supposed to meet them.

He spotted the young woman as Shannon joined them, discretely wiping her lips.

As he waved an arm, Tobias slipped the ring into a secure pocket. He absently noticed Gavin starting to walk around the edges of the clearing, while Oifa seemed to be taking deep breaths and smiling. Shannon still looked faintly green around the edges.

Ariel jogged to meet them.

“Sorry,” she said, “The rings don’t always let out in exactly the same place. This one’s usually at the other end of the clearing.”

Tobias shook his head, “No worries. Where do we meet the Coven? And the Rovers?”

“Coven territory starts about a mile north-northwest. They’ll have someone meet us on the edge. The Rovers aren’t sending anyone. From what I’ve been able to get out of them the last couple days, the anomaly’s about a half day’s hike into Coven territory, more or less straight west. They’ve agreed to get you that far.”

Tobias nodded, as Oifa asked, “Are we on our own after that?”

“I’m told the Coven have a couple people watching things, a small camp on the edge of the area. But, I doubt it’s much more than a couple tents. Nothing that would draw undue attention or personnel.”

“So minimal hospitality,” Tobias mused, “Strange, with them coming to us for help.”

Ariel started to say something before Shannon cut in, “Not really, I think. They’ll be worried about the politics of seeming too close with the Tower. It could look like a threat to others, an alliance. And they’ll be wary of looking like they need help. Politics. Even out here away from the cities, they’ll be concerned about observation, even behind scry wards, especially on the edge of Rover territory.”

Their contact nodded, “Something like that. I’ve secured some tents and supplies though, on the Tower’s tab. The Coven’s already moved everything to their camp.”

Tobias resisted the urge to check in on Shannon’s condition. She’d been Order, the gesture probably wouldn’t be appreciated. Instead, he met Oifa’s eyes and, at her nod, shifted to Gavin, who’d rejoined them. The other man gave his own nod.

“I think we’re all good here, Ariel,” he said, “Which way are we headed?”

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(As usual, mostly unedited, just proofread once or twice; comments and feedback welcome)

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(Red20 Deviant Art)

“I’ve heard of them, obviously,” Tobias said, “but haven’t seen one.” Not that they were rare or even uncommon, but they didn’t come up often in his own specialized studies. This one was clearly made by a fellow cryptomancer, though he’d heard of lithomantic ones as well. The device would launch a bolt of sorcerous energy when activated, then recharge before another bolt, hence its common name.

After another moment, he handed the magical weapon back and watched Gavin smoothly holster it.

Tobias was vaguely aware of Oifa and Donovan conversing somewhere else in the room. He turned to find them leaning against the bar, down at the far end near the blue door. They weren’t speaking loud enough for him to hear anything beyond a low susurration.

Second later, all four heads turned as the blue door opened.

Headmaster Waite led the way in, his brass capped staff thumping softly on the floorboards. He was, Tobias noted, in blue and green today, and pulling off a style of robes that hadn’t been fashionable since the 70s. As soon as he cleared the door, Shannon Riallo followed a couple steps behind.

She had traded her suit and lab coat-robe for something more suited to the woods they were supposed to be visiting. Somehow she’d found brown leather hiking boots that were even more pristine than his own, with khaki cargo trouser tucked into the tops. An off-white tunic style blouse and slightly worn brown leather jacket completed her “travel” change. He noted a matte black canvas messenger bag that had the minute telltale bulges of gems sewn into the lining and the triangular bladed short sword hanging from her hip. Her staff was nowhere in sight, though he spotted more gems peeking from under the edges of her clothes than he was used to seeing on her.

Waite looked around briefly before walking to Tobias.

“Master Jacobs, good luck,” he said, “As the lead master on this field trip, I shall give you this.”

Tobias accepted a plain white gold ring set with a mottled green-black stone. He briefly noticed some markings before the Headmaster was shaking his hand. The ring disappeared into one of his pockets until needed.

“Without further ado,” Waite was saying, “Have off, people. Remember, you represent the Tower to outsiders. Best behavior.”

He smiled and immediately left through the red door before anyone could say anything in response.

Tobias clapped once and looked at the faces surrounding him.

“Well, then,” he said, “Everyone ready?”

Seeing no dissent, he took the ring from his pocket and looked more closely at the markings. They were definitely glyphs of some sort, but not a system or kind with which he was familiar. He held it out toward Shannon.

She shrugged, “Malachite. To reinforce mental powers. Probably concentration in this case.”

“Anyone know how these work?” Tobias, himself, hadn’t left the Tower since he was hired. He’d had no reason to return to Earth, with his teaching schedule and other work. He had no time for his own research and his family wasn’t the call-every-week type. The Brotherhood of Thoth tended to attract and produce very focused individuals.

Oifa nodded, “Put it on and concentrate on Earth. Each is keyed to a specific location. Anyone touching you, even indirectly, will come along.”

“Simple enough,” he allowed, “Anyone need to check anything? All good to go?”

He held out a hand to Oifa, who took Shannon’s hand, who took Gavin’s. Tobias found himself holding a wrist, connected to the hand holding Salovich’s staff. He awkwardly slipped the ring on one handed and closed his eyes. He focused on thoughts of the Brotherhood library he had grown up in long ago.

Within seconds, the quartet started to fade from Donovan’s sight.

Crossing the gap between the Tower’s demi-plane and Earth took some time.

After about half a minute, the pub proprietor was once again alone with his charge. He let loose a long stifled yawn, locked both doors, and went back upstairs to his bed.

Delays

Things have been a touch crazy here the last week.

Between the U.S. holiday Monday, getting into the second week of kindergarten with the Little Guy, and my semester starting (with more hours at work than anticipated, which means a bigger paycheck, woohoo!) . . . it’s been crazy.

But, I’ve gotten more writing done in the last couple days than in the previous month.  And I will try to get something more substantial posted this weekend, though I work tomorrow (possibly trying to rectify that, keep the hours, but reassign them to different days so I don’t have a six day work week).

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(James Godfrey)

5

 The sun had just started to peek over the Tower’s northern buildings, Connacht and Dee, as Tobias dressed to leave. He left aside his instructional attire, including the impractical scholar’s robes. Instead, he’d chosen a simple white henley-style shirt with dark trousers and spotless medium brown canvas and leather hiking boots. In deference to the situation, he decided to add a straight, single edged hunting knife from the Tower armory and settled it on his right hip. His knapsack was slung on one shoulder and he chose to keep his staff in its full sized form—nearly six feet of highly polished, medium brown wood painstakingly carved with glyphs of various sorts.

Tobias Jacobs, a master of the Tower, took one final look around his sitting room. He gave a shrug and sigh. If there was anything else he needed or was forgetting, it wasn’t coming to mind at the moment. Better not keep the others waiting.

He strode across the early morning grounds, the unaccustomed weight of the pack shifting on his back a counterpoint to the equally unfamiliar, albeit slight, weight of the knife. The walk to the pub took him south of the class buildings, skirting the woods to his right hand side. It didn’t take long for the one story stone and wood building to come into sight. The red door was closest, the blue was on the other side.

Tobias passed under the weathered wooden sign that bore a indistinguishable head splitting the words “Dean’s Head” above and below. Where the name had come from, no one had been able to tell him. As far as anyone knew, there had never been a dean at the Tower, or anyone historically important named Dean. It was one of the campus’s lesser mysteries.

A dim light was already escaping through the front pair of eastside windows.

Tobias quickened his pace, hoping it was one of his fellow faculty, not the Headmaster.

It wouldn’t bode well to start off his first field project by arriving later than the Headmaster. Waite and the others probably wouldn’t care, but he would.

A sigh of relief escaped his lips once he slipped through the brightly painted door to find Donovan Verner, the proprietor, was the only occupant in sight. The older wizard was starting to go bald, his white hair thinning in the back, but usually showed the energy of a much younger man. Tobias was comforted somehow to find the man still clad in his trademark trousers, t-shirt, and apron ensemble, even though there were no patrons, nor would there be.

Donovan nodded, a silent morning greeting that Tobias returned as he set he knapsack down on a table.

“Anyone else here?”

“Saw Master Riallo heading this way when I came in to open up,” the older man said, already absently cleaning a glass stein, “but she must have gone zerstreut.”

Unfamiliar with the word, Tobias guessed from context. Sometimes the wizard shifted into his native German in mid-sentence. Everyone got used to it eventually.

He started thinking about whether to wait seated or standing when the red door opened again.

Oifa and Gavin walked in, the former’s staff clacking on the stone paving then shifting to thuds as they switched to the wood flooring.

Salovich, Tobias noted, hadn’t changed a thing in her attire. She’d just expanded her staff, as he had, to six feet of a white wood, unadorned except by a pair of feathers that seemed to be tied on with pale leather. And she carried a solid, knit satchel of a kind he associated with mushroom gatherers, a plain steel and silver clip knife attached high on its strap.

She noted his gaze and smiled, “For harvesting, only.”

Marker was, as he always seemed to be, a contrast juxtaposed against Oifa. His traveling attire, apparently, consisted of a tight forest green shirt under a sleeveless jerkin of heavy leather sewn with steel rings and loose black trousers tucked into sturdy boots that reached halfway up his calves. His wide belt supported a pair of wooden shoto, one mahogany and the other a white wood, as well as a hunting knife that could have been the twin of Tobias’s. He carried an incongruously modern grey backpack and over his right shoulder poked the handle of a . . .

“Is that a boltcaster?”

Gavin nodded, “For beasts.”

“May I?”

The man casually reached over his shoulder and drew what appeared to be a shotgun forestock and grip. There was no barrel or shoulder stock. He handed it toward Tobias, who gingerly took it in two hands.

With a casual inspection, he spotted a couple glyphs of an unfamiliar nature.

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(Deposit Photos)

When Marker stopped and nodded to him, Tobias returned the gesture.

“The Headmaster’s ready for us to leave tomorrow, early morning.”

“Good,” Marker said, as he ‘sheathed’ his sword.

Tobias took a second look and recognized the signs of a sorcerer’s staff. Interesting for something the man fought with, or at least trained to fight with. Most sorcerers were almost obsessively protective of their staves.

“If you have a moment,” he said, “I’m curious . . . why the combat arts?”

Gavin shrugged, “When you’re born Free, you learn to fight, hide, or both. Fast. Turns out, I’m good at both. Seemed like a good idea to play to my strengths.”

Factionless, but not reputable like the schools. That explained some.

“Fair enough,” he said aloud. “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a sorcerer who came from The Free.”

“Probably because there aren’t many. It’s illegal to self-train, the few who want to teach others can’t, legally, so they keep quiet,” Marker gave another shrug, “When you get a chance to go off-Earth for school, you take it, no matter where it is.”

And that told him something, possibly more than intended. The man came from one of the less reputable schools of sorcery. Interesting.

“Anything else?”

Tobias shook his head, “No, I don’t think so. We’ll meet in the Head at seven.” He’d chosen the campus pub because it would be empty that early. There would be no audience, which there shouldn’t be anyway.

Moments later, Jacobs was outside again.

He stood for a few moments, looking across the manicured lawn at the grey stoned Tower and the red bricks of Wulfstan. The incongruous architecture was the result of numerous building projects and different visions of the institution over the centuries. But, like all the rest of the Tower’s faculty, he had work to get done.

Tobias focused his mind on Oifa first, his right hand sliding unconsciously into the sleeve of his open robe to touch his staff. He typically wore the highly polished, heavily carved artifact in a sort of sheath sewn into his sleeve. In an instant, since she was nearby and not blocking contact, he had a direction and rough distance for the other master. His attention shifted to Shannon, directing his will toward her, to find she was in almost the same place. Back at Drakewell for both.

An hour later, he was in his rooms, having informed the entire team of their schedule. Which brought him back to deciding and packing. Procrastinating, even for something necessary, had done nothing to help with the decision. Lacking better ideas, Tobias eventually snatched up a couple texts on Germanic and Scandinavian cryptomancy and tossed them in the bag. They were swiftly followed by a collection of bright orange, plastic tent stakes he’d gotten the Tower steward, Albert Harker, to scrounge up. At the very least they’d be useful for marking ward edges or something. Two other books and a few necessities rounded out the contents of his bag, aside from the clothes he’d wear and his staff, of course.

Why Do I Build Worlds?

(Apologies: I’ve been a bit scattered lately.  I blame the heat, humidity, and getting a kid off to kindergarten for his first “real” school experience.)

I think I’ve visited this subject before, but we change and evolve. So, if I have covered it before, we’ll circle around back to the topic. If I haven’t, then no worries, this is new.

 The last few days, as I’ve wrapped up major notes on more than a few projects, I’ve thought about why I do it. After all, making up fictional worlds really seems kinda silly when you sit down and think about it. At least on the surface.

A bit deeper, I think it gives us a place to play with and explore ideas in safety. We can toy with different religious, political, philosophical, economic, and other concepts in an environment where they can do no harm. It doesn’t matter if the concept leads to dystopia or whatnot, because there are no real lives involved.

On another hand, playing with those very same ideas can tell us a great deal about our own world.

 Previously, I found that I started a world by thinking of a specific place and then expanding outward in ever widening circles. Lately, I’ve been starting with a magic system, then building a world for the system to exist in. Usually that means shaped by the laws of magic, but not always.

 This isn’t about my process, though. It’s supposed to be about the why.

 Simple Level:

Building worlds gets ideas out of my head. Sometimes they simply pop up. Other times they’re inspired by really great fiction. Occasionally, they’re inspired by the “I can do better than that” reaction.

 I’ve been doing it for a long time, relatively seriously for 20+ years. Sporadically for 30+ years, thanks to my cousins who introduced me to D&D (back in the original red box, Basic days).

 I kind of feel like those are cop outs to a degree, though. They’re true, obviously. And are akin to my reasons for writing. I can’t imagine not doing it. But, they still seem rather simplistic in a way.

 The last few weeks, I’ve realized there’s something comforting about worldbuilding.

 I know that, back when I had a laptop, I would start worldbuilding when I was sick. I’d be sitting there propped up in bed, high on decongestants, and I’d start putting elements together. I haven’t done that as much lately, since my laptop died and I went back to a desktop, but occasionally with the tablet it works.

 I also turn to worldbuilding when I’m in a bad “head space”. When things feel like they’ve entirely gone wrong, when I wonder what I’m doing and why, all those sort of things, I find that I turn to creating fictional worlds. Often they’re quickly slapped together, but they’re something. And they often reflect what I’m thinking about, usually something idealized or idyllic, or that I’m experiencing frustration with in life. I suspect this reason, in particular, helped me get through grad school, notably the doctorate. We used to half-joke back in those days that you weren’t really in a doctoral program unless you asked yourself, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I here?” at least once . . . every couple weeks. I suspect worldbuilding and writing fiction, as bad as the results were, helped.